Radical Myanmar monks urge 'Muslim' phone company boycott

YANGON (AFP) - Radical Myanmar Buddhist monks are urging a boycott of telecoms firm Ooredoo because it hails from Muslim-majority Qatar, despite its promise to boost access to affordable mobile phones, a cleric said on Thursday.

Ooredoo, along with Norway's Telenor, is set to begin selling cheap SIM cards this year in Myanmar, where the exorbitant cost of phones under the former junta left as many as nine out of ten people without access to a telephone.

But it comes as the country is grappling with a growing Buddhist nationalist movement spearheaded by extremist monks, who have urged boycotts of Muslim shops and proposed a raft of deeply controversial laws to restrict religious freedom.

"We want Buddhists to buy things only from shops owned by those of our religion and the profits should go to our religion," said monk Parmuakha, who is organising a campaign against the firm beginning on Saturday.

The cleric, who goes by only one name, said his group "condemns" the Myanmar government for issuing the licence to Ooredoo.

The telecoms firm plans to sell SIM cards for no more than 1,500 kyats (S$1.8) - around a thousandth of their junta-era peak cost.

Sales will begin in the major cities of Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw from the third quarter of this year.

"We believe that each and every person is born equal and deserves respect," said Ooredoo's spokeswoman Thiri Kyar Nyo.

"I think any suspicion about our company will quickly dissipate once people start to see more of our brand and the positive effects that we will bring to the people of Myanmar," she added.

Myanmar began to emerge from military dictatorship in 2011 under a quasi-civilian government whose economic and political reforms have led to the end of most Western embargoes.

The country's rich natural resources and potentially lucrative pool of customers among its approximately 60 million-strong population have generated excitement over its potential as Asia's next frontier market.

However, actual investment has been cautious, tempered by lingering fears over corruption, transparency and the legal landscape.

The telecoms licences, valid for 15 years, are the first to be awarded by Myanmar, and will see the two foreign firms enter a market once monopolised by a pair of state companies.

Ooredoo, formerly known as Qatar Telecom, has previously said it would pump US$15 billion (S$19 billion) into Myanmar.

Parmuakha shrugged off concerns that the boycott could dissuade foreign investors.

"It is more important to protect our national identity and religion," he said.

Myanmar authorities began selling cheap SIMs for less than $2 through a lottery system last year.

But the scheme is relatively small and ordinary SIM cards retail for US$200.

"We poor people can only use cheap phones... we don't care where that company comes from," said 64-year-old Tin Shwe, who earns around US$8 a day peddling a cycle rickshaw - not enough to buy a mobile.

"It would be good to have one so I could call my family," he added.

Religion has become a deeply sensitive issue in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where several outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence in the last two years have left around 250 people dead.