RANGOON, Burma — Incense swirls through the air on a darkening evening, as a Buddhist monk sits cross-legged before an ancient temple, his eyes closed in meditation. His cellphone rings. The monk fumbles in his traditional crimson robes, speaks for a while, then puts it aside and continues meditating.
All around him, his fellow Burmese are celebrating a full moon festival at the Shwedagon Pagoda, snapping pictures of themselves in front of flickering candles and filming their children. Once, a trip to the most sacred site for Burmese Buddhists meant prayerful contemplation. Today, it’s like Disneyland.
Just a few years ago, a mobile phone was a luxury well beyond the reach of ordinary citizens in Burma, also known as Myanmar, a country isolated from the rest of the world during decades of military rule.
The junta tightly controlled who got SIM cards, and just a few years ago black-market cards cost as much as $2,000. Less than 10 percent of the population had access to cellular telephones, making the Southeast Asian nation one of the largest untapped markets in the world.
But in recent months, cellphone use in Burma has skyrocketed as the quasi-civilian government opened up its mobile market to two foreign telecommunications companies, which launched sales in August and September. As a result, cheap smartphones are more widely available, and the price of a SIM card has dropped dramatically — to $1.50.
Earlier this month, some in Rangoon braved the remnants of a tropical storm to line up outside a Telenor store, an outlet of the Norwegian telecom firm that opened here in September and already has 2 million customers. Others shopped in the dark — after the power went out — at a Samsung dealership nearby.
Myint Thein, 67, a retired government employee who waited patiently in line, left the store with his first mobile phone, which he said he bought at a “very cheap price” — about $20.
“It surprises me in my heart that I can actually have a cellphone,” he said.
Last year, a SIM card cost about $200, a huge expense in a poor country where the average per capita annual income is still about $1,000. Those who could afford one prized it like a family heirloom, while the rest of the country — population 51 million — made do with old-fashioned dial sets at roadside telephone stands.
After the Burmese government began a process of democratic reform in 2010 under a new president, Thein Sein, expanding the country’s mobile network became an early priority, explained Ross Cormack, chief executive of Ooredoo Myanmar, the Burma branch of the Qatar-based company that won the other licenseawarded by the government last year.
“It’s one of the last unpenetrated markets in mobile,” Cormack said. “There was a huge pent-up demand.”
Ooredoo Myanmar serves the major cities of Rangoon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw, the capital, but it is planning to expand into rural areas in the next two years, with the goal of covering most of the country in five years.
Sean Turnell, a professor at Macquarie University in Australia who studies Burma’s economy, said that the mobile market’s lightning-fast expansion is positive but that questions remain about the larger economy. The government has yet to make deeper economic changes or relinquish power over many industries controlled by state-owned entities or the military, he said.
“I think we can count this a success,” Turnell said. “But it is slim pickings indeed beyond this. Agriculture has been scarcely touched, and if anything — given higher prices for all sorts of things — the living circumstances for that high proportion of Myanmar's population are probably worse off now than three years ago. Meanwhile, the reform momentum seems to have stalled.”
There is also some concern about whether the growth of social media will provide a greater platform for Buddhist-Muslim hate speech that has plagued the country recently. But most feel that the expansion of mobile service to remote corners of Burma will have the same benefits seen in other developing countries. Of the more than 6 billion mobile phone users worldwide, according to a 2012 World Bank study, 5 billion are in developing countries, where they now have greater access to basic health-care information, banking and employment.
“I can already see how it will be better for business,” said Khin San Nwe, 59, a government employee in the Ministry of Cooperatives. She said it is far easier now to reach the small laborers who have microloans from the ministry and work in the Irrawaddy River delta.
Awthahta Nyani, 26, a Buddhist nun, said she bought her first cellphone about a month ago and uses it as an online dictionary and to tape her lectures at college. Now, she said, she can call her nephew in Malaysia with Viber, a mobile application that is wildly popular in Burma. She also likes the fact that her mother, a rice farmer, can reach her easily when she calls from a telephone shop in her village.
“It’s like freedom,” she said.