SIM Card Corruption in Burma Stalls Progress

Business as Usual

In 2008 when I arrived in Yangon there was barely a usable internet unless one made a trip to an expensive hotel and sat for hours using what Americans once called hi-speed dial-up. For telephone communications one had to use a landline and then, most likely, the call was difficult to connect or cut off during a conversation. Only the wealthy could afford to buy a mobile phone with prices for a SIM card way over one thousand U. S. dollars. I got along like most people and often used word of mouth and passed messages through friends, as this was the best way to communicate. It certainly was the safest way to communicate for political activists and dissidents.

In 2010 after many months of rumors and anticipation, the price of a CDMA SIM was finally made affordable at 500,000 Burmese Kyats, or about 500 U.S. dollars. I was eager to have a mobile, as my work required more and more urgent communication so I doled out the cash and another 100 dollars for a Chinese made phone and I finally got connected. Then 3G was introduced and for another 50 dollars and a weeks worth of waiting, I finally got a pretty decent Internet connection compared to the state owned internet service or the crony owned outrageously expensive Red Link.

Ever since 2011, rumors and stories were told of the government opening up mobile communications to outside companies that would eventually increase service quality and lead to lower prices. Finally, after many months of waiting in 2012, one of the ongoing official announcements was made about the 1,500 Kyat ($1.50 USD) SIM cards becoming available – in 2013. No one really held their breath as official announcements about such things in Burma were normally followed by months and months and months of waiting. The waiting was no doubt caused due to the general and cronies competing and negotiating for the ensuing kickbacks and payoffs.

Lo and behold, one day the new GSM 1,500 Kyat SIM card was finally released and at long last mobile phone use would take off in what was now officially Myanmar. Well, sort of. The new cheap SIM cards were offered in many townships on a limited basis. Myanmar people had to register their names and addresses with their National Registration Numbers and wait for the lucky draw – a lottery of sorts that was literally turned into a way to make some much needed cash for most people who were lucky enough to win a SIM card.

The lucky winners of the cheapo SIM cards typically went to a mobile phone store, or talked to a relative or friend and announced they would be willing to sell their SIM card. Initially, prices were unofficially set at about 220 U.S. dollars for a black market SIM for anyone wishing to buy one from a lucky draw winner. The price dropped to about 170 dollars then 140 shortly after. Everyone with their hands on the sale got a small commission and in the end, depending on how many commissions were paid, the original seller made about 130 to 100 dollars. Those amounts are more than twice the national average monthly income so for most Myanmar people, winning the SIM card meant a good bump up in spendable cash.

Last month, I decided that I wanted to finally use the unlocked IPhone 4S I bought in the U.S. at an Apple store for $579.00. After getting my Burmese GSM SIM card I waited a few days, then got the SIM card clipped down to fit the micro card slot, and tried to activate it. No deal. It seems that a tiny detail no one ever told me about, and one I never heard about, was that the SIM card had to be activated within 14 days of the original owner taking possession. I was sold an outdated SIM card and in Burma, once you give money over to someone you will never get it back. Lesson learned, buyer beware, “fool me once shame on you, fool me, uh, uh, can’t get fooled again”. (Thank you President George W. Bush for the quote and for being a complete dumbass and confusing a classic idiom with a WHO rock and roll song that you no doubt listened to while stoned out of your mind.)

A Myanmar friend told me she could go down to the Myanmar Teleport office on Pansodan Street in Yangon and find out about getting it turned on. The rumored rate to do so was about 35,000 Kyats. I walked up the seven flights of stairs with her; an old metal stair case with cracks and depressions that made me feel as though I would fall through in places, wall paint cracked and worn, red streams of dried beetle nut spit in the corners, it was all so usually filthy it never crossed my mind to be surprised that I was entering the ground zero for GSM telecommunications for the entire nation.

On the top floor there were benches with plastic chairs bolted to the walls. Broken and open windows above the chair let in some damp air and lot’s of pigeon shit since the crappy old birds roosted on a ledge just above the windows. It was not charming. Inside the double doors were about five old tables with piles of papers, no computers, and several people standing around talking and laughing. It was about 10 AM, an hour after the office officially opened.

Finally, the people inside the office area sat at their tables and a couple of dozen people who were waiting with us, standing up instead of sitting on chairs loaded with pigeon shit, rushed inside like a human tsunami and literally clambered over each other to get the attention of the clerks at the table. There was no order, no line or “Que” as it’s called in Myanmar, no sense of courtesy and no lack of effort to nudge others out of the way of oneself. On the other hand, this is normal in Myanmar and no one argued with each other about being shoved and bumped about by another.

One aggressive woman was very noticeable to me since she was not trying to get the attention of the clerk. I watched in amazement as my nice friend got herself inside the scrum to the clerk ahead of the other much larger and meaner customers. The aggressive woman was trying to talk to the customers, not the clerk and she finally reached my friend. It turns out she was an “agent” and for a fee she could fix our troubles and have my SIM card turned on. The price was 40,000 Kyats for a two or three day wait or 30,000 Kyats for a ten-day wait. My friend was skeptical but took her calling card anyway, just in case.

My friend told me the clerk instructed her to bring a legal document similar to a Power of Attorney note because the SIM was actually the property of another person. We walked down the stairs, outside and down the road a few blocks to an attorney’s office and there, for 10,000 Kyats, we got a forged Power of Attorney and returned to the Myanmar Teleport office. Once back up the stairs we found a clerk who was extremely helpful and was doing the job she was paid to do. She told us we had to speak to a particular person inside a different office now that we had the necessary legal document.

Once inside that office, a polite gentleman checked over our documents and the date of the SIM card’s original purchase. He proceeded to tell us that he couldn’t help us. The card was outdated, not activated in time, and that his hands were tied. We didn’t bother insulting him with an offer of small gratuity (called tea money) to help us out, as he was very professional and nice to us. We believed him when he said he could not activate the SIM card.

However, he then proceeded to tell us about the agent in the next room. He told us she had access to a lineman who, for a fee, would in turn activate the SIM card. I’m assuming somewhere in Yangon there’s at least one person who sits at a computer and performs such work. Many government offices are absent computers and instead, they use rough yellow paper with carbon paper for making copies and file the documents in large teak cabinets. It’s probably a system that’s been in use since during colonial days.

We went back to the “agent” who by now had gathered four other people who also bought outdated SIM cards and she explained her pricing structure and services to all of us. No doubt she was not ripping people off because she was talking to the clerks who belonged in the office. It was as if she was as much a part of the office system as anyone who worked behind the old tables with papers piled on high.

We opted for the 40,000 Kyat plan but made an appointment with her for the next week rather than give her the upfront money on a Friday and wait nervously over the weekend. She even offered next day service for a few thousand Kyats more!

I’ll leave it up to assumptions about how commissions are allotted to the people working in the Myanmar Teleport office. I don’t find fault with them, or blame then in any way, for the way things work in Myanmar. This kind of corruption is endemic from the top down in Myanmar the same way as Wall Street and big banking corruption has affected the reason why President Obama has appointed so many cronies from Goldman-Sachs into places of financial authority giving them easy access to loot the United States’ treasury and the savings and retirement accounts of unsuspecting Americans.

I just find it a tad annoying that my GSM SIM card, which was originally sold for 1,500 Kyats has wound up costing me 185,000 Kyats – just to use my damn IPhone made in China by people under uber-stress inside a slave-like factory where their peer’s commit suicide as a usual occurrence.

Lest anyone thinks Myanmar is making progress with all of the talk of reforms and economic progress, I warn them not to think about my experience for a dose of reality since they are not being realistic if they think things in Myanmar have changed. The rich and powerful, the corporations, oil and gas companies, and land speculators and developers are making a killing in Myanmar. But in truth, ordinary people still live hand to mouth and eat survival food. There is no explosion of mobile telecommunications progress and with a system in place like the one just described, I have no doubt that Myanmar is many years away from becoming a modernized country where people can rely on public services to function in an orderly way.

In spite of all this, the GSM mobile phone service is terrible. Calls often never connect, and the connections frequently drop and when they don’t drop the connection aren’t clear, as if one is trying to speak while under water. This is the real progress in Myanmar – slow and slower. Progress in Myanmar is only about the rich getting richer, and everyone else is still working for scraps. Aside from traffic jams, land developments, and investment schemes, not much has change for ordinary people in Myanmar. In fact, with rising prices for basic necessities, it’s become worse for many.

Daniel Opacki is an educator and writer who lived in Burma for five years. His collection of stories about his time in Burma is forthcoming. Now residing in Vientiane, Lao PDR, he can be reached via his personal blog at Bamboodazed.com. Read other articles by Daniel.