Phone calls in Burma - now and then ...

In the modern world we’re living in, a large part of personal communication takes place via telephone. In this regard, Myanmar is following the global trend. The numbers are impressive: In 1986, there were not even 60,000 telephone connections across the country. Twenty years later, this number had increased almost tenfold. And it was still one of the lowest ‘phone densities’ in the world. One telephone (incl. mobile phones) for 65 residents. In Germany there are more telephones than people… Even more impressive are the numbers in the mobile phone sector, which actually exists only since 1995. While slightly more than 5,000 mobile phones were in use that year, their number has multiplied since then – and the trend is rising steeply. “So what?” you might say, “every middle-sized city in the US has more!”.


That is basically true, but in Myanmar mobile phones cost a lot of money for a long time: in 1995 one had to pay almost five thousand (5,000!) US dollars for a SIM card (not including the device itself, of course!) and fifteen years later it was still $2,000. In a country where a teacher earned about 50 US dollars a month those days! And why were they so expensive? Because the government kept supplies (similar to cars) artificially low. And the people who sold them would rather charge 2,000 US dollars than practically give them away for free, as in the West. And let’s admit it: it had its advantages, too! Those days hardly anyone was being disturbed by people shouting into their cell phones next to them.  Which many people might appreciate by now, even in Myanmar. But those days are gone for good: even my gardener has two smartphones!

When I moved into my house in Weikza Rd. (9 mile), I had only one phone line. Unfortunately, it often didn’t work and so I asked my landlord to provide a second line for me – at his expense, of course. And the good man actually had a telephone line laid from the house to the main road 500 metres away! If I was lucky, one of the phones would work and if not, I still had my chinphone… The ‘lineman’ decided on the weal and woe of the telephone owners. He was the phone company’s employee responsible for the neighbourhood. Anyone who valued ​​a working phone tried to be on good terms with him. My landlord paid the guy five dollars every month so he wouldn’t cut the line.

Because when he needed money – which was actually always the case – he disconnected a line and waited until the owner came to him. Then he told him about the problems in the life of a ‘lineman’ and how difficult it was to keep track in this outdated tangle of cables. The customer was almost in tears and gave the guy a few dollars and – lo and behold: it’s working again! Influential customers (embassy staff, etc.) saved themselves the effort: one call to MPT was usually enough to get the problem under control.

The man got a dressing-down from his superior and – whoosh! – the phone worked again. However, you had to be pretty high up the social pecking order if you contacted the agency directly: otherwise your phone may be down longer than usual.

Now it’s one thing owning a phone, but another to use it properly. If I call a person whom I don’t know, I tell him/her my name first and then what my call is about. But not so in Myanmar! My phone rings and I pick up: an unknown caller says “Hello?”. Obviously people here seem to expect that the called party identifies herself – instead of the other way round. Of course this is not an option for me! So I always answer with “Hello?”. I think my record stands at six “Hellos?” before the stranger gave up. Answering machines seem to be particularly fascinating for many locals: After the caller has said “Hello?” three times, he ends the conversation. Then he apparently fetches a friend and immediately calls back to share the miracle of modern communication technology with him. A foreigner making some kind of foreign announcement! Fascinating! And funny too!


I can proudly claim having witnessed the development of Burma’s telecommunication sector for over 45 years. In the 1970s, telex was the ultimate. But only embassies and the big state-owned companies and a few hotels had that. Overseas calls were expensive and cumbersome. Ordinary mortals had to go to the telephone exchange at the intersection of Pansodan and Merchant Streets. If I remember correctly, the calls had to be booked several hours in advance. Price per minute was eight dollars. Then a lady poked around in some antediluvian distribution box and at some point you were called: “Sir, your phone call to Germany!”.

On a lucky day you could even understand what the person you were calling was saying. As long as the line was stable and the Indian gentleman in the next booth didn’t yell so loudly that I couldn’t hear my own words. So I tried to avoid it as much as possible. By the way, those days it was not much different in Thailand, except for the long waiting time. I still remember my trips from the Atlanta Hotel in Sukhumvit Rd. to the telephone exchange on Charoen Krung Street on the river bank (near the Oriental Hotel) when I had to make a call to Germany. I vividly remember stepping out of the chilly building onto the street. It felt like I was entering a sauna …