'Muslim' mobile firm stirs Myanmar ire

'Muslim' mobile firm stirs Myanmar ire

YANGON - Religious tensions engulfing Myanmar spread on Friday to the world of business: Monks and others in the predominantly Buddhist country demanded to know why a lucrative licence for a new mobile phone network had gone to a company from a Muslim country.

Norway's Telenor was widely seen as a favourite and there was little surprise that it was one of the two winners announced on Thursday.

But Ooredoo of Qatar, formerly known as Qatar Telecom, was a surprise to some.

Currently only 7.3 million of Myanmar's 60 million people have access to mobile phones, making it one of the least connected countries in the world.

Social networking sites were alight with criticism, with comments flooding the Facebook pages of government officials who posted the official announcement.

"We should not be putting the Myanmar's telecommunications system into the hands of an Arab company," Kyaw Kyaw Oo wrote on the page of the president's office director, Hmuu Zaw. "I will not use their service."

Others said giving the contract to a Muslim-owned company was "worrisome", especially as it came at a time people were calling for protection of nationality and race.

Since embracing political and economic reforms in 2011, Myanmar has witnessed firsthand the downside of newfound freedoms of speech. Preaching all over the country, monks belonging to the radical Buddhist movement called 969 have been urging followers to boycott Muslim businesses and not to marry, sell property to or hire Muslims.

That has incited violence in several parts of the country with 250 people, most of them Muslims, killed in the last year and 140,000 others fleeing their homes.

"I'm really unhappy," said Shin Pyinya Dhaza, a monk from the Thaketa monastery in Yangon and a 969 supporter, when asked to comment on the telecom deal.

Some of the overlooked front-runners in the telecom deal included Singapore Telecommunications, Bharti Airtel of India, KDDI Corporation of Japan, Telenor of Norway and Digicel of the Caribbean. More than 90 international consortiums were vying for the licences and 11 were shortlisted.

Set Aung, chairman of the government panel handling the tender, defended Ooredoo, which has operations in more than a dozen countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia as the "best choice". It also has deep pockets, promising to pump part of its cash pile into the network.

That the government didn't consider public sentiment was a good thing, he said.

"That just shows how transparent we are and how unbiased," he said.

In a statement released on Thursday, Ooredoo said its investment in Myanmar would create a significant number of jobs and be the indirect catalyst for several hundred thousand jobs in areas such as sales, distribution and customer service as the mobile industry develops.

Though not a household name in Asia, Ooredoo has been stepping up its presence in the region for many years and is the biggest shareholder in the Indonesian phone company Indosat. It also has stakes in Singapore's StarHub and the main phone company in Laos.

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