Thursday, October 4, 2007

Telecom and the Burma crackdown

There’s been a lot of talk and reports of how Internet and technology have managed to focus world attention on the protests and subsequent crackdown in Burma (Myanmar). Whether it’s via cell phone, blog, picture sharing sites or old-fashioned email, the consensus is that more news got out, and got out a lot quicker, than during the last big uprising and crackdown in 1988.

Since then the military junta has cut off the Internet connection, but still there were some reports still getting through via mobile phone cameras, although it seems they have even tried to shut down the cell network as well. That leaves some satellite connections at private companies and embassies, and perhaps some roving satellite phone subscribers. Let’s hope they don’t succeed in closing the last remaining view into the country completely.

As it turns out, I happened to be tracking a story on the junta’s plans for its very own cyber city just before the protests began. There had been quite a few reports of a 10,000-acre (4,050 hectare) “Yadanabon cyber city” project about 70 kms east of Mandalay, the country’s second largest city. According to Xinhua news agency, not only was it going ahead, but the first stage would be officially opening in January 2008 and with some big-name tenants from China, Russia, Thailand and Malaysia.

The Irrawaddy, probably the best news source about Burma, did a story back in June that panned the grand ICT plans of the junta. In particularly it quoted Reporters without Borders, which labelled Burma an Internet black hole and suggested that no foreign company in their right mind would risk going there.

Yet according to Xinhua last month, the list of companies signed up to be anchor tenants in the cyber city included the likes of ZTE and Alcatel Shanghai Bell (ASB) from China, Thailand’s Shin Satellite, IP Tel from Malaysia and Russian software outfit CBOSS. It also claimed that an airport had been built “in” the cyber city and that “various systems including ADSL, CATV, Triple Play and WiMax are being installed, experts said, adding that the present stage before the soft opening deals with fiber cable installation.”

That’s quite a detailed list of development. As it turned out, I was at a satellite conference in Bangkok the same week and had a chance to ask a number of people at Shin Satellite directly, including the company president. Not one person had even heard of the Yadanabon cyber city, never mind being an anchor tenant. I then contacted Alcatel about the Alcatel Shanghai Bell (ASB) involvement and got the same response – there were no plans to invest in the cyber city project.

Obviously the military dictatorship had simply made up stories to give their ICT project some credibility. They’ve got the patch of cleared jungle for the site, but now they are desperate to get foreign investors to part with their money so they pretend that companies are already moving in. I’m also guessing that the likes of Shin Satellite and ASB were named because they do have activities within Burma. Shin has an agreement with the Myanmar Posts and Telecommunication to provide satellite services throughout the country, including VoIP and Internet access via satellite, while ASB has in the past been involved in mobile and fixed network projects there.

One group that picked up on ASB’s involvement thanks to the Xinhua report was Corporate Social Responsibility Asia (CSR Asia). It noted in a posting on its web site that Alcatel Shanghai Bell was Alcatel-Lucent’s flagship company in China, and that Alcatel Lucent had a portion of its web site devoted to the topic of CSR, including its commitment to the UN Global Compact. The GC requests companies to avoid complicity in human rights abuses, yet as CSR Asia noted, with an investment in Burma there is sure to be some questioning of how they intend to ensure that.
That’s quite a contentious issue, and as no other media had followed up on it, I decided to question CSR Asia and at the same time let them know that the original news source on the main companies’ involvement in Yadanabon cyber city was probably incorrect. However, there was still their involvement in general telecom projects within the country to consider.

Stephen Frost, a founder and director of CSR Asia, started off by suggesting there may well be a role for the likes of Alcatel and Shin Satellite to invest in Burma from a CSR perspective. “Sanctions are clearly failing and the junta looks no more likely to relinquish power today than when the sanctions were applied. Moreover, engagement hasn’t worked either,” he told me. Frost also suggested that it might be time for a serious discussion on whether investment with “CSR strings attached” could play a role. “I’m not suggesting companies should invest; just saying it really needs to be discussed outside of the confines of the ‘Burma sanctions lobby’,” he noted.

On the subject of Alcatel specifically, however, he said the issue isn’t so much that Alcatel invests, but rather the disconnect between its CSR position (as stated on the web site) and its actual practice. “The statements on the parent company’s web site re the Global Compact point to laziness at best,” he noted, adding: “I think the company is mis-managing its brand by failing to engage with the Burma issue fully and transparently.”

Frost also pointed out that around the same time as the cyber city news stories were surfacing, Alcatel-Lucent had announced that it had been accepted onto the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index. Yet other companies were in the past “essentially thrown off that index” over their Burma investments, he pointed out.

There are no easy solutions here, but as the world lauds the fact that the Internet was able to play a small role in getting information out on the junta’s brutal crackdown, it also needs to be aware that the technology also aids and abets that same junta. And if it eventually does go ahead with its cyber city, companies need to be very certain that the investments they make really are going to be beneficial – both to them and the people of Burma – in the long term. – Geoff Long

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