YANGON (Reuters) - The Internet has the power to prevent Myanmar’s leaders from backsliding on the country’s rapid transformation that has taken place since the military government stepped aside two years ago, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said on Friday.
Speaking to an audience of young entrepreneurs and students in the main city of Yangon, he said the Internet can empower Myanmar’s people.
“Your government had made an incredibly important political decision. Open up the country to foreign ideas, to the Internet, to your own communications, to your own newspapers,” he said.
Schmidt, who raised eyebrows with a trip to North Korea in January, is visiting the former Burma as part of a trip to Asia that also took in India. He is due to meet Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, later on Friday.
The president has overseen a rapid transformation of the political and economic landscape since he took office in March 2011 after the military stepped aside following almost five decades in power.
“The Internet will make it impossible to go back,” Schmidt said.
Asked for his advice on developing the sector, he said, to loud applause: “Well, first, try to keep the government out of regulating the Internet.”
Newspapers and the Internet were subject to strict censorship under the military but the state has relaxed its control under Thein Sein and will allow private daily newspapers from next month.
Myanmar is Asia’s newest frontier market for foreign investors. Its telecoms sector is untapped with mobile penetration among the 60 million population estimated at a meager 5-10 percent.
A planned modernization of telecoms infrastructure and an expected boom in mobile phone usage will pave the way for the entry of companies such as Google.
Google launched a version of its homepage for Myanmar, www.google.com.mm, on Thursday.
“In the next few years the most profitable business in Myanmar will be the telecommunications industry,” Schmidt said.
A U.S. business delegation, which included Google, visited Myanmar last month to explore opportunities. The delegation, led by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), looked into projects to boost access to the Internet, strengthen transparent government and expand digital literacy, USAID said.
Despite Myanmar’s liberalization, human rights issues remain a dark spot on its record.
Ethnic and religious conflicts continue to fester. In the latest incident, up to 10 people died and buildings were set ablaze in the town of Meikhtila in sectarian clashes between Buddhists and Muslims.
Schmidt told his youthful audience companies like Google were a force for good. “Technology empowers individuals. One mobile phone in one village can record injustices.”
Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Alan Raybould and Neil Fullick