The phlegmatic government (you can try to get rid of the booger from your fingers but it just sticks around) of Myanmar just announced a shocking awardment of foreign telco licenses to build 4G networks in Myanmar. The winners of the 15 year concession were Telenor from Norway (DIGI fame) and Ooredoo from Qatar.
What was shocking was the favourites did not get a mention. SingTel which was easily the hot favourite did not get it. SingTel was bidding as part of a consortium with Myanmar's biggest bank Kanbawza Bank. SingTel with a large footprint in emerging markets, backed by Temasek, not to mention being buddies in ASEAN loose coalition of neighbours to boot.
It would appear that there are other concerns in the awardment of the concessions. The messages are loud and clear. One, Myanmar still regards ASEAN as not the most important grouping as the memebrs try to make it out to be. Suffice to say, Myanmar has had lingering political issues that earned the ire of many foreign countries. Be it Aung San Sukyi or the dastardly acts towards the Rohingyas. It appears you cannot EVEN say anything negative or try to interfere in any way, even by political suasian or closed door sessions. A hands off and mouth zipped policies are valued.
The other favourite was a consortium led by Digicel, a Jamaica based telco that first invested in Myanmar in 2009 and employs close to 900 people in the country. The consortium also included Goerge Soros and Seung Pun, a leading businessman in the country. This was supposed to be a shoo-in. But no.
Again, that may have a message to George Soros, an advocate of democracy and supporter of many private efforts via NGOs globally. If you want to do big business in Myanmar, be apolitical.Any country that supports sanctions etc... will be "punished".
Ooredoo was ranked 9th out of 11 bids and was unlikely given the tension with anti-Islam violence with the Rohingyas, as the company was Qatari. Still, Ooredoo is 67% owned by Qatar government and provides telco services in Indonesia, Singapore, Laos and the Philippines. It supposedly has over 60mn customers in Indonesia alone.
Telenor can better explain its cause as it has Norway government support. Plus the Norway government has been one of the more active European countries in Myanmar, supporting and funding various projects in the country.
So, it could be political ... or it could also be corruption. Who knows? It certainly did not look to be fully on merit alone. Though Telenor could win by merit alone as well. Too many questions, the perils of doing business with government.