YANGON (Reuters) - Google Inc Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, who visited North Korea in January, will become the first high-profile tech company executive to visit Myanmar in the wake of reforms that prompted Western nations to ease sanctions following decades of military dictatorship.
The visit next week to Myanmar, where Schmidt will speak at a technology and communications park and meet with government officials, is just one stop in a multi-country Asian tour to promote Internet access, according to Google.
Since Myanmar’s military stepped aside and a quasi-civilian government was installed in 2011, setting off a wave of political and economic reforms, the country has enjoyed a surge of interest from overseas businesses.
The former Burma is the last virgin territory for businesses in Asia, with untapped markets including the telecoms sector: mobile penetration in the country of 60 million is estimated to be a meager 5-10 percent.
Unlike Schmidt’s controversial visit to Pyongyang, in which Google described as a “personal” trip, the visit to Myanmar falls within his mandate as executive chairman, which involves government outreach, thought leadership and building partnerships and business relationships, the company said.
But Schmidt, who was Google’s chief executive from 2001 to 2011, is becoming more visible on issues involving technology and world affairs.
His book, “The New Digital Age”, due to hit bookshelves in April, was co-authored with Google Ideas chief Jared Cohen, who had previously worked at the U.S. State Department.
According to an early review in The Wall Street Journal, the authors criticize China for being an enthusiastic “filterer of information” and a “prolific” hacker of foreign companies. During Schmidt’s tenure as Google’s chief, the company famously pulled out of China after a dispute over censorship and hacking.
“Eric (Schmidt) is visiting several countries in Asia to connect with local partners and Googlers who are working to improve the lives of many millions of people across the region by helping them get online and access the world’s information for the first time in the next few years,” Google said in a statement. His trip also includes India.
In November, Schmidt visited Seoul, Taipei and Beijing.
The Myanmar trip will be Schmidt’s second visit this year to a country off the beaten track. In January he went to North Korea, saying it was a personal trip to talk about a free and open Internet.
Schmidt is due to give a speech at the Myanmar Information and Communication Technology Park in Yangon on March 22, before making his way to the capital, Naypyitaw, to meet senior government officials, said Zaw Min Oo, secretary general of the Myanmar Computer Society.
“There will be an audience of about 400, comprising entrepreneurs, executive committee members of the computer association and young leaders,” Zaw Min Oo told Reuters, referring to the speech.
Myanmar’s planned modernization of telecoms infrastructure and expected boom in mobile phone usage will pave the way for the entry of companies such as Google, which could profit greatly through sales of cheap smartphones built around its Android platform.
In February the U.S. Treasury Department issued a general license for four of Myanmar’s biggest banks, two of which are owned by tycoons associated with the former junta, before a visit by 50 U.S. executives that month to explore opportunities.
The delegation, led by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and including Cisco Systems Inc, Google, Hewlett-Packard Co, Intel Corp, and Microsoft Corp, visited Myanmar to look into projects to boost access to the Internet, strengthen transparent government and expand digital literacy, according to a USAID statement.
Many leading firms in Myanmar are still largely controlled by businessmen subject to sanctions, but Western companies are starting to move in after the implementation of a new foreign investment law.
Myanmar is offering two operating licenses for companies to build new telecoms infrastructure.
MTN Group, Africa’s largest mobile phone company, which is bidding for a license, has said around 90 companies have expressed interest.
Additional reporting by Jeremy Wagstaff in Singapore and Alexei Oreskovic in San Francisco; Writing by Paul Carsten in Bangkok; Editing by Alan Raybould, Pravin Char and Richard Chang