On the surface, the capital of Myanmar looks like a modern city with its broad roads, leafy manicured environment, high speed Wi-fi at a sprawling international convention centre, and a cavernous modern airport.
But like much of the rest of Myanmar, Naypyitaw is deceptive. Government ministries scattered along the avenues, hidden behind lush greenery, may be pursuing ambitious reforms, but remain stuck in the analog era when it comes to connecting with the people. Myanmar remains months away from the e-government services that many elsewhere in the region take for granted.
The problem is not limited to the government. There is no such thing as Internet banking in Myanmar yet. The absence of a modern telecom infrastructure is frustrating banks’ ambitions to expand their range of products.
None of the country’s domestic airlines offer e-ticketing; they are hand-written in the old fashioned way. Western economic sanctions may have been lifted, but in a hangover effect, Myanmars still cannot purchase products online from abroad. Domestic credit cards have only just been launched; large transactions are still done with bundles of cash.
In his small, modest second floor office with a curtain for a front door, in the Ministry of Information in Naypyitaw, director Myint Kyaw is optimistic however, that all this will change soon – and the government will not be far behind.
Mr Myint Kyaw is one of the few Myanmar government officials who uses the Internet all day. But like other officials, he is currently limited to email and Facebook. Myanmar’s government ministries have their own websites, but most are not active, he says.
“Most government employees are afraid to use computers and are not comfortable with the idea of soft copies,’’ he said during a chat in his office, as the heat of the afternoon sun flooded through the curtain competing with the air conditioner labouring inside.
“Most of the ministries do everything manually, and it’s very difficult to change that. It’s a question of moving from an analog to a digital system,” he said. “And it’s not only government agencies, it’s also citizens.”
“We have to introduce e-governance on two levels, government to government, and government to citizens. It’s part of reforms. But first we have to create awareness in government employees.’’
Some preliminary steps have been taken. On Nov 4, the ministry of information together with the ministry of science and technology and a United Nations agency, UNESCO, organised a one day training workshop for officials, on using the Internet.
The next step is to get an international company involved, probably in a joint venture with a local company, to set up interactive ministry websites, Mr Myint Kyaw said. The target for completing the task is not set, but it should be done by the end of next year.
"Government departments still rely on manual filing. At the most some officers use Facebook. But this has to change,” he said. “And coming up to the 2015 general election, all members of parliament are going to have to be familiar with the online environment.”
Myanmar’s coming mobile phone revolution will help, he said. Currently, only around 11 per cent of Myanmar’s population has mobile phones – but this is set to dramatically expand to 75-80 per cent by 2016.
Smartphones which started becoming available only in 2011, are getting cheaper. And with their spread, citizens will increasingly demand phone and Internet banking and other online services, Mr Myint Kyaw said.
Still, before the piles of files and dusty ledgers that record everything from births and marriages to death and taxes, give way to paperless offices, there is one critical barrier to be overcome that is the legacy of decades of stifling military dictatorships – a trust deficit.
The most important issue is for citizens to trust online transactions with the government, Mr Myint Kyaw said.
”The shift from analog to digital needs trust, that’s the most crucial thing in this country. We have to change the culture. We have to connect with the people.”