Walking down towards the Pansodan street and Mahabandoola Street junction of Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital, I saw a small entrance not more than four feet wide, sitting between a hawker of 3G SIM cards and another of sunglasses. In the backdrop were stacks of British colonial buildings with patchy paint and moldy corners.
I stepped inside, my eyes squinted to adjust to the darkness, and was relieved to escape the humidity and heat of December. Leaving the buzz of the traffic and rows of vendors selling an array of small treasures, I found myself in what looked like a dormant post office. No one seemed to be in sight. One of the signs hanging over the counters read: “Telegram.”
Until today, three years after two foreign companies took over to build mobile infrastructure for one of the world’s least connected countries, 3G network is finally made cheap and accessible in urban areas like Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw, but the service is sometimes spotty.
Rural households just outside the city mostly do not own landline phones. Instead, a call can be dialed to a family-run grocery store, whose owner would run to fetch the person to answer the phone.
Sitting at Yangon’s street-side tea stalls, though, it is easy to spot smartphones poking out from a young man’s longyi, the traditional long skirt that men tie around their waist, which has no pockets.
“When I studied in the Philippines, I was shocked to see people still connecting to the Internet using cables, and it’s so slow,” Aung Shwe Oo told me. He was working at an NGO that gave English classes. “Here, some of my friends still don’t own a computer. They do everything from their smartphones.”
Mobile network in Myanmar is a classic development “leapfrog”: emerging countries are bypassing costly intermediate technologies requiring “grid” infrastructure, like phonelines and electricity cables, and go straight to the “gridless” ones, like WiFi and solar panels.
“There are tremendous advantages to starting from scratch.” Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, said during a visit to Yangon in 2013. “You will literally leapfrog 20 years of difficulty to maintain infrastructure.”
A year ago, I spoke with Khine Lin, a 25-year old Burmese young man who came back to create the Myanmar version of Yelp, called MyLann, after graduating in the US. “Nobody has ever done this here,” he told me he’s spent three months driving all over the city to look for restaurants and their address, phone numbers and opening hours.
Now, there are apps developed in Myanmar to teach people how to stamp ballots during this year’s elections, to hire cabs like Uber, or to monitor maternal health. I wonder how much has changed after a year, and if people in traditional occupations, like farmers, would make use of these technologies. I want to find out what they have gained or lost by missing out ADSL and landline phones.
Back at the Telegraph Office, a man in his fifties, with dark hair and stooped eyes walked toward the counter. “Excuse-me,” I said. He looked up from the eye-glasses hanging over the tip of his nose. “Can I send a Telegram here?” I asked. What a stupid question. Telegram only exists in Sherlock Holmes.
“Of course,” the man answered, looking at me as if I was indeed dumb. A wave of excitement went through me. “Can I send a telegram to Hong Kong?” A post card sent via wires will give anyone a pleasant surprise.
He fished out a piece of square paper, rough and grey in color, printed with curly Burmese, a few lines and boxes. “Write here, and address here,” he instructed. “You can only send to Myanmar.” ◼︎
Header photo courtesy: @Dustin Main.