Eric Schmidt surprised many when he made a “private, humanitarian” visit to North Korea in January, and now, following that trip, the Google Executive Chairman is said to be preparing to visit Burma, a country that was — until recently — a similarly isolated state.
Updated: Google has confirmed the visit, see more details at the update below.
Local news agency The Irrrawaddy cites “informed sources” who claim that Schmidt “will soon visit” the country in a trip that will see him meet with senior government officials, opposition leader (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Aung San Suu Kyi and a number of leading businessmen.
A Google spokesperson declined to comment on the report, but the trip is plausible given the nature of Schmidt’s visit to North Korea and existing commitments. He’s already confirmed to speak at The Guardian’s Big Tent Activate India event in New Delhi on March 21, and could maximize his time in Asia by stopping off in other countries too.
A trip to Burma — which is officially known as Myanmar — may appeal to Schmidt for a number of reasons. The country has recently opened up under the quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein, formerly its Prime Minister and a military commander. A series of political reforms saw media censorship relaxed, some political prisoners released and freer elections, but concerns still remain and the adoption of technology is far from widespread.
Technology-wise, Burma is in a similar league to North Korea. Around 1 percent of the country’s near-50 million population has Internet access and — though tech companies are beginning to enter — adoption of mobile devices remains very low. Just 3 percent of the population were thought to own a phone of any description in 2011, according to The World Bank.
The country’s new constitution has heralded an influx of major international brands — including Coca Cola, Hilton, Ford and more — and it is equally as promising for tech, with Research firm IDC calling it an “unpolished gem”. Schmidt could help impart valuable advice and influence — his comments led to North Korea’s mobile operator opening mobile data services — to aid the democratization of the Web there, but equally there are still issues around Google services in Burma.
Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that several journalists who cover Burma received warnings from Google that their email accounts might have been hacked by “state-sponsored attackers”. That suggests that previous issues of government intervention are continuing despite the changes.
Update: Google has confirmed that Schmidt will visit Burma, providing TNW with the following statement:
Eric Schmidt is visiting several countries in Asia to connect with local partners, who are working to improve the lives of many millions of people across the region by helping them get online.
The Wall Street Journal has further details on his itinerary.
Headline image via Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images