Google chairperson Eric Schmidt is apparently set to head to Burma, a country once in a similar state of isolation to North Korea, which he visited back in January.
According to Burmese news agency The Irrrawaddy, Schmidt will “soon visit” the country, meeting with government officials, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and leading businessmen.
The country’s military rulers, who have been in charge since taking over in coup in 1962, have put severe restrictions on internet access in the country. Today less than one percent of the Burmese populace is online. That’s slowly changing under the more lenient rule of President Thein Sein, who has made expanding the country’s IT networks a priority.
According to The Next Web, Google has refused to comment on Schmidt’s movements although he is confirmed to speak at The Guardian’s Big Tent Activate India event in New Delhi on 21 March and could easily sneak in a quick trip to Burma.
It’s not entirely clear why Schmidt would go to Burma. His visit to North Korea was a humanitarian one (don’t expect Pnongyang to start trying to lure big tech companies into the country anytime soon, that’s not its vibe). The same might be true of Burma, although the message would be more centred around encouraging it to keep opening up rather than opening up even a little as was the case with North Korea.
Given Sein’s assertion that he is trying to make the building of IT infrastructure a priority, along with research company IDC’s assertion that Burma represents an “unpolished gem“, it could well be that Burma is actually courting Schmidt, looking to him to impart advice and influence.
If the country listens to that advice, then ordinary Burmese people might benefit. After all, his North Korean trip saw the country open up mobile networks. For the moment, the service only really benefits tourists, but it does help a country once largely closed to outsiders.
If Schmidt is able to convince Burmese authorities to expand internet access in the country then he could be giving it a golden opportunity to hand over some form of power to its people.