Radical Myanmar Monks Urge Boycott of 'Muslim' Qatari Telecom Firm

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Radical Buddhist monks in Myanmar 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 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 them. 

But it comes as the country grapples 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 organizing 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 license to Ooredoo.

The telecoms firm plans to sell SIM cards for no more than 1,500 kyats ($1.50) -- 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.

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

"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."

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.

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

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

Ooredoo, formerly known as Qatar Telecom, has previously said it would pump $15 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 $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 $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.

Other international firms have found themselves embroiled in the country's religious tensions.

This week, Unilever scrambled to take down billboards for its Knorr brand of stock in Sittwe, capital of the unrest-torn Rakhine state, after it discovered that shop-owners had printed the Buddhist nationalist "969" logo onto them. 

"We are against any form of racial, ethnic, religious or gender discrimination," the Dutch giant said in a statement.

Two waves of deadly communal violence between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine in 2012 left around 140,000 people displaced, mainly Rohingya.

Sectarian bloodshed -- mostly targeting Muslims -- has since spread to other parts of the country, with monks even seen taking part in the violence.

Myanmar's parliament is set to consider several proposals for new religious laws, including bills restricting conversion and inter-marriage.

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