The Burmese authorities have placed the recently-resigned Minister of Posts and Telecommunications under house arrest over possible links to high-level corruption in a proposed nationwide telecommunications network, a government official said Wednesday.
Former minister Thein Tun and more than 50 officials from his ministry are under investigations over the graft issue as the government invites companies to submit investment proposals for nationwide telecommunications services, including telephone and Internet connectivity, officials said.
Thein Tun, whose resignation was announced by state media last week, "is under house arrest and is being investigated at his home" in the capital Naypyidaw, an official from the Ministry of Home Affairs told RFA's Burmese Service.
A group led by Auditor-General Thein Htike is leading the probe team that includes officers from the Criminal Investigations Department and the Bureau of Special Investigation, officials said.
Details on the corruption allegations were not immediately available but sources said that the officers under investigation include the general manager of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, Thein Oo; the ministry's managing director, Eitedila; and chief engineer of the ministry's mobile department, Htay Win.
The probe also covers two Chinese telecom companies, Huawei and ZTE, which have a significant market share of the mobile phone market, and 11 other companies believed to be working with the ministry to expand access to mobile phones in Burma, where the lack of communications infrastructure is viewed as a major stumbling block to development.
Burma, one of the world's poorest countries, is believed to have the lowest mobile phone penetration rate in Asia, with about 3 million people, or only 5 percent of the population, using mostly low-end handsets, reports say.
Mobile SIM cards cost from around $250 while the Internet is mainly the preserve of the urban elite.
A week ago, the government invited local and foreign companies to submit investment proposals for a nationwide telecommunications network and state media reported that two companies will be awarded telecommunications licenses after bids close later this month in the lucrative sector.
The liberalization move is part of changes by reformist President Thein Sein, who came to power in March 2011 and introduced a series of political and economic reforms after almost five decades of repressive military rule.
Thein Tun had joined Thein Sein’s original cabinet in April 2011.
Thein Tun's resignation was believed to be due to his refusal to reduce the price of SIM cards for mobile phones to levels sought by the president, according to sources close to the ministry, the Irrawaddy online newspaper had reported last week.
Thein Tun, who had overall responsibility for mobile licensing, reportedly disagreed with a plan to drastically cut the cost of buying a SIM card during a cabinet meeting, the newspaper said.
The President’s Office had called for the price of a SIM card for GSM and CDMA 450 MHz handsets to be set at 50,000 kyat (around U.S. $55), but Thein Tun argued that the ministry would lose half of its investment if it sold the cards at that price.
Thein Tun reportedly wanted to produce 4 million SIM cards—enough for roughly 10 percent of the country’s population—and sell them at 200,000 kyat ($U.S. 220) apiece. However, this price would put the cards beyond the reach of most Burmese consumers, the Irrawaddy journal reported.
The ministry, which has already produced 3 million SIM cards, has come under pressure from private companies to sell them at a cheaper price.
Reported by RFA's Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.