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Decision to give hotly contested telecom contracts to Muslim firms sparks ire in Myanmar

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YANGON, Myanmar - Religious tensions engulfing Myanmar spread Friday to the world of big business: Monks and others in the Buddhist-dominated country demanded to know why a lucrative license for a new national mobile phone network had gone to a company from a Muslim nation.

Currently 7.3 million of Myanmar's 60 million people have access to mobile phones, making it one of the least connected countries in the world, according to government statistics seen Friday. Eager to push that number to 45 million by 2015, the former military-run nation decided to loosen its grip on the industry and award licenses to build and operate mobile networks.

Norway's Telenor was widely seen as a favourite and there was little surprise that it was one of the two winners announced Thursday.

But Ooredoo of Qatar, formerly known as Qatar Telecom, was a surprise to some. The company's majority shareholder is the Qatari government.

Social networking sites were alight with criticism, with comments flooding the Facebook pages of government officials who posted the official announcement.

"We should not be putting the Myanmar's telecommunications system into the hands of an Arab company," Kyaw Kyaw Oo wrote on the page of the president's office director, Hmuu Zaw. "I will not use their service."

Others said giving the contract to a Muslim-owned company was "worrisome," especially as it came at a time people were calling for protection of nationality and race.

Myanmar only recently emerged from a half-century of isolation and military rule.

Since embracing political and economic reforms in 2011, it has witnessed firsthand the downside of newfound freedoms of speech. Preaching all over the country, monks belonging to the radical Buddhist movement called 969 have been urging followers to boycott Muslim businesses and not to marry, sell property to or hire Muslims.

That has incited violence in several parts of the country with 250 people, most of them Muslims, killed in the last year and 140,000 others fleeing their homes.

"I'm really unhappy," said Shin Pyinya Dhaza, a monk from the Thaketa monastery in Yangon and a 969 supporter, when asked to comment on the telecom deal.

Some of the overlooked front-runners in the telecom deal included Singapore Telecommunications, Bharti Airtel of India, KDDI Corporation of Japan, Telenor of Norway and Digicel of the Caribbean. More than 90 international consortiums were vying for the licenses and 11 were shortlisted.

Set Aung, chairman of the government panel handling the tender, defended Ooredoo, which has operations in more than a dozen countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia as the "best choice." It also has deep pockets, promising to pump part of its cash pile into the network.

That the government didn't consider public sentiment was a good thing, he said.

"That just shows how transparent we are and how unbiased," he said.

In a statement released Thursday, Ooredoo said its investment in Myanmar will create a significant number of jobs and be the indirect catalyst for creating several hundred thousand jobs in areas such as sales, distribution and customer service as the mobile industry develops.

Though not a household name in Asia, Ooredoo has been stepping up its presence in the region for several years and is the biggest shareholder in Indonesian phone company Indosat. It also has stakes in Singapore's StarHub and the main phone company in Laos.

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