First Local Social Media Site Launches in Myanmar

Startup Squar will compete with Facebook for an exceedingly small pool of Burmese web users, with Internet penetration rates in the country at just 1 percent.

Myanmar’s first local social networking site, Squar, launched this week -- the latest step out of the shadows of global media and technology for the formerly isolated Southeast Asian nation. Founded by an international team in Vietnam, the mobile-native Burmese-language site aims to bring technology and community together by creating a platform for Myanmar nationals to meet and chat.

The fledgling service will face considerable challenges when trying to recruit users in the short term, however.

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Internet usage in the country formerly known as Burma remains one of the lowest in the world with a completely underdeveloped infrastructure and a usage of just over 1 percent, according to the World Bank. The majority of Internet access by the country’s 60 million population still is obtained through mobile devices. Squar currently counts users in the several thousands. 

Under the former military junta, cell phone and Internet access severely were restricted -- with handsets costing upward of $250 and installation fees of $1,000 for home connections, taking technology far out of reach for the average citizen, who earns $60 to $70 a month.

The country currently has a mobile penetration rate of less than 10 percent, in comparison to neighboring countries Thailand and Malaysia with penetrations of more than 100 percent (many consumers there have two cell phones). Permanent GSM SIM cards remain near impossible to find in Myanmar, with most going for more than $200 on the black market.

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The current quasi-civilian government aims to increase cell phone usage to 50 percent by 2015 with the help of Ooredoo and Telenor, the two international mobile networks that won a hotly contested telecoms tender June 27. The impact that this surge in mobile phones will have on the 70 percent agrarian population undoubtedly will be significant.

Since it was permitted by authorities last year, Facebook already has proved a big hit, with users who don’t have handsets or constant connectivity treating it more like a Twitter feed and local journalists using it as a news source.

In January, Taiwanese phone company HTC launched the first Myanmar-language-ready phones, meaning that users no longer had to jailbreak their phones before being able to use them.