With a newly liberalised economy, GDP growth clocking at 6.4%, and a young, increasingly educated population, Myanmar is poised to quickly become a full-fledged digital economy.
The telecom sector, for instance, has grown and evolved relatively fast. Government efforts have resulted in over 100% mobile penetration, along with 34% of the population having internet access, and 30% having mobile internet access. This gives Myanmar the boost it needs to reap the socio-economic benefits of a digitally enabled economy.
Transforming into a digital economy requires conducive laws and policies, as well as investments in ICT skills and infrastructure. A well-planned regulatory framework keeps pace with technological changes, while fostering a culture of innovation. Combined, these two elements allow users – citizens and consumers alike – to trust the wide range of emerging digital products and services.
In this regard, Myanmar has made some significant progress. Key regulations relevant for the development of Myanmar’s digital economy include:
• Computer Science Development Law (1996): One of the first laws formulated to recognise the growing importance of technology in the country. It laid down measures to guide the development and dissemination of computer science and technology. It also set up institutions, such as the Computer Science Development Council to lay down policy and guidance and the Myanmar Computer Federation (MCF), as an umbrella organisation of all computer-related associations and technical groups.
While the law and its concurrent initiatives came at an opportune time, it is still over 20 years old and requires upgrading. The ICT sector is experiencing profound changes, and a law that focuses on capacity building, infrastructure, public-private partnerships, and directing foreign investment needs to reflect the advancements made in these areas.
• Electronic Transactions Law (2004): Created electronic legal equivalents for the concepts of records, signatures, and communications, introduced cyber offences, and set up several regulatory bodies.
A major breakthrough at the time, the law needs to be updated to keep up with current developments in the transactions and payments space. As consumers across ASEAN move towards online shopping, Myanmar will need to facilitate e-commerce development within its own borders. Thus, it will need to include aspects of online intellectual property law, regulation of online content, and dispute resolution.
The law does contain some provisions that cover hacking, interception of information, giving access to information without consent of owner, and misuse of electronic signatures, but these items do not replace a more holistic cybercrime law. Such a law would lower the potential mis-use of digital products and services, thus deterring cybercriminals and stimulating foreign investment. The recent Consumer Protection Law (2014) that aims to protect the rights of consumers and producers is a step in the right direction, but it needs to be updated to include protection for consumers online.
• Telecommunications Law (2013): Aimed at expanding telecommunications technology and services in the country, the law outlines the duties and rights of service providers and regulators. For instance, it requires providers to securely maintain the information transmitted or received through its telecommunication services, as well as confidential personal information of users. It also introduces penalties for accessing and disturbing a network, releasing a virus, and defamation or harassment through a telecommunications network.
Here too, the law must be updated to include a more modern approach to privacy in the digital age. As it stands, the law contains sparse information on online privacy and data protection. Regrettably, the recently passed Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens (2017) also stops short of data privacy online and though a welcome step, needs revisions to include these aspects.
Myanmar is a complex country and prolonged sanctions and restrictions have resulted in unique challenges, including in the regulatory space. Lately, however, the government has made efforts to update laws that directly impact digital businesses. For example, the business registration process has been made faster and simpler, and foreigners are now permitted to hold up to 35% of a local company.
These initiatives augur well for the development of Myanmar’s digital economy. The growing interest in Myanmar is a recognition of its immense growth potential. For example, Nokia and Ooredoo have recently launched a number of IoT initiatives aimed at making Yangon a smart city. More investments will follow suit if the country continues to provide a reliable and secure environment for investors through improvements in the legal and regulatory space.
Photo by Harish Shivaraman