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Despite only beginning to embrace digitalization around five years ago, Myanmar has been rapidly expanding its digital ambitions as a nation: smartphone prevalence is picking up among the populace, even outside the urban centers, and 3G-enabled internet access is cheaply available and widespread.

IT companies like Huawei were looking to offset slowing digital adoption in more mature markets with accelerating interest in the emerging markets of Southeast Asia, even before the global COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on local economies.

“The Myanmar telecom market started late. But developed very fast in the past few years,” Ding Zhaoyi, Huawei Myanmar’s CEO, told Eleven Media Myanmar. “Huawei cooperated with [local] operators such as MPT, Telenor, Ooredoo, and Mytel, with the rapid deployment of communications networks in Myanmar, it has brought Myanmar to the information society in a few years, greatly changing the development of various industries and people’s work and life.”

The coronavirus crisis subsequently interrupted the country’s economic expansion, which had been so strong in early 2020 that Myanmar is tipped to narrowly escape the recession that is befalling many of its neighbors. The World Bank revised Myanmar’s 2019-2020 financial year growth forecast from 6.4% to just 0.5%, but even as all sectors were affected– the agriculture and information and communications technology (ICT) sectors have proven remarkably resilient.

Indeed, Myanmar’s ICT sector is experiencing a surge of activity driven by a COVID-19-caused increase in telecommuting and e-commerce, and sudden spikes in data demand has seen many companies – both private and public – turning in record numbers to cloud services.

“Almost all companies are now using video conferencing tools, and they have also explored cloud services so they can access their work systems from home,” Shane Thu Aung, co-founder and chairman of the Yangon-based Global Technology Group that produces high-speed broadband services, told Oxford Business Group. “They need to connect through the cloud due to heavy user traffic. Most government and private sector applications are also going over to the cloud.”

Companies in business hubs had to ensure that their employees were prepared to work remotely for the first time, improving internet connectivity from homes and adopting new tools that are more suited for work-from-home arrangements.

This is the first time the local digital economy has swung towards prioritizing home broadband over developing its mobile internet connectivity, and the pandemic-driven new demand for internet-based services is seeing businesses increasingly looking to adopt digital payment solutions.

Similarly, to avoid cash transactions, a number of restaurants and stores have been pivoting their operations towards a more e-commerce friendly model. The sharp uptake in digital products and platforms is being strongly encouraged by the Myanmar government, including the use of e-commerce alternatives by smaller businesses, the use of bank transfers and card payments to complete online purchases, and the increasing use of mobile payments.

The government likely looks at these new ICT developments as building upon the nation’s existing infrastructure and heightened internet coverage, in line with its Myanmar Digital Economy Roadmap that aims to increase internet penetration from 40% last year, to 50% by 2025.

Myanmar’s better-than-expected digital rebuilding before and throughout its pandemic response is proving to be attractive to foreign investors and stakeholders, such as Huawei Technologies, which has been active in Myanmar since 2011. “Myanmar is very important to Huawei, and Huawei is also very important to Myanmar,” mused Huawei Myanmar chief executive Ding.

Huawei was one of a number of Chinese firms that were contributing towards the COVID-19 relief efforts around the Mekong delta. “In Myanmar, Huawei is providing technological services in artificial intelligence (AI) and video conferencing – more than 700 lakhs MMK (approximately US$50,000) in contributions,” Ding told Eleven Media.

“Huawei’s Telemedicine Video Conference Solution [is] deployed at University of Medicine Yangon and the Central Institute of Civil Services (Phaung Gyi) which is a set-up hospital with the capacity to treat up to 2000 COVID-19 positive patients, and MOHS has enabled government and medical experts with epidemic prevention, multi-collaboration, online consultations and interactive training that not only enhances diagnosis efficiency – but also significantly helps reduce risk of infection for the entire medical team.”

Huawei Cloud AI is also extending its services, not just to combat the pandemic, but to provide assistance to get local small medium enterprises (SMEs) back on their feet.

“We have a global action plan to help customers around the world to fight COVID-19 with cloud and AI services,” noted Ding. “In Myanmar, Global Wave Together with Huawei Cloud are planning to offer an online check-in function which will be beneficial for 200,000 local SME employees during COVID-19 pandemic.”

As its Chinese government ties continue to impact Huawei’s ICT dealings in a number of (mainly US-allied) countries, Ding thinks that Huawei will be one of the major contributors to Myanmar’s burgeoning ICT landscape – and not just as a network infrastructure provider.

“Huawei helps Myanmar rapidly and efficiently deploy information systems and services for various industries, such as finance, retail, logistics, transportation, education, media assets, and medical care,” he said. “And fulfill the social responsibility of the enterprise to promote the sustainable development of society.

“In addition, Myanmar is one of the fastest-growing countries in the world. It is expected to continue in the next few years and has a large population. It is an emerging market for the ICT industry.”

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