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Kenny pressed as investors line up for phone licence

THE Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has said he "did not make any commitment to deliver assistance to any party" in relation to communications investment in Myanmar (the former Burma).

Mr Kenny was responding to questions from Sinn Fein's finance spokesman Pearse Doherty, arising out a of statement the Taoiseach made to the Dail in January following the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Digicel, the telecommunications company controlled by Denis O'Brien, last week confirmed that it is to pursue one of two new telecoms licences on offer in Myanmar as part of a consortium including investor George Soros.

The consortium comprises Digicel, Soros's Quantum Strategic Partners and the Yoma Strategic Holdings group, which is run by Serge Pun, one of the most successful businessmen in Myanmar.

Mr O'Brien believes that his $1.2bn (€910m) bid for a mobile phone licence in Myamar, if successful, will "double" the size of the company, which has 13 million subscribers and revenues of $2.5bn (€1.93bn).

Following the Davos summit, Mr Kenny told the Dail on February 12 that "when speaking to people in Davos" the issue of the opening up of Myanmar had arisen.

He said: "It is a country of which we do not have great knowledge, although there were real connections between Ireland and Burma as it was called. That country of 60 million has a huge range of natural resources, yet some 58 million of its people have never had access to communications.

"That country will move from what might be termed ground zero to cloud computing and cloud access straight away. The scale of the investment there will be enormous."

Mr Doherty sought further information from Mr Kenny in relation to the people he had spoken to in Davos about the opening up of Myanmar.

On February 19, he asked the Taoiseach to confirm the discussions he had at the recent Davos summit; the persons with whom he had discussions; the nature of these discussions and if he had committed to deliver any assistance to any party in respect of communications investment in Myanmar.

Mr Kenny replied that the opening up of Myanmar and prospects for development and investment there were an important global theme which arose in "various discussions" in Davos. He said it was also part of the Government's consideration of international opportunities for trade and investment for Ireland.

The Taoiseach said that last year's visit to Ireland by Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, was a signal of the important and positive reforms being made by the Myanmar government. These reforms should be welcomed.

He added: "I did not make any commitment to deliver assistance to any party in respect of communications investment in Myanmar."

On February 21, Mr Doherty submitted a further three questions to Mr Kenny.

He asked:

• If the Taoiseach had "discussions or other interaction" with Denis O'Brien, the chairman of Digicel Group, at the Davos summit, and, if so, to provide an outline of the matters discussed.

• If Mr Kenny had "discussions or other interaction" on the subject of Myanmar "at the suggestion" of Mr O'Brien, or his representative or representatives, at the Davos summit, and, if so, to provide an outline of the matters discussed.

• If Mr Kenny had "discussions or other interaction" on the subject of Myanmar at the Davos summit with representatives of the government or president of Myanmar, and, if so, to provide an outline of the matters discussed.

The Ceann Comhairle, Sean Barrett, wrote to Mr Doherty on March 5 and expressed his "regret that I have to disallow" the questions as the "information sought" in the first and third questions "was provided" by Mr Kenny on February 26.

He also said the Taoiseach was "not responsible" for the information sought in the second question.

On February 26, Mr Kenny had been asked by Labour TD Colm Keaveney to provide details of all bilateral meetings between himself and any other individual or group in Davos, including the identity of all groups or individuals and the purpose of each meeting.

Mr Kenny replied: "The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) is attended by political and business leaders and heads of international organisations and provides a unique forum for debate and discussion on a wide range of topics of global economic and political interest. I attended the 2013 annual meeting in Davos from 23-25 January."

The Taoiseach then set out details of his programme and stated that the primary purpose of his engagements was to promote Ireland as a location for international business and investment.

His programme included: working dinner for heads of state or government attending, hosted by Professor and Mrs Schwab; meeting with New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) Euronext; media event – CNBC Europe; meeting with Christine Lagarde MD of the IMF to discuss Ireland's EU/IMF programme; WEF interactive plenary session on 'Eurozone crises – the way forward' with the prime ministers of Italy, the Netherlands and Denmark; WEF working lunch on 'Europe: Growth and Employment'; meeting with Diageo, IDA event for client companies and prospects (approximately 45 attendees), meetings with Facebook, Cisco, Microsoft, Cantor Fitzgerald; media event – Reuters; meetings with Bank of America, Western Union, McGraw Hill; WEF private high-level working lunch to discuss the global themes for 2013; address at Transatlantic Business Dialogue on strengthening the EU-US trade/investment relationship.

Last week, it also emerged that Vodafone Group PLC and China Mobile Ltd, the two biggest wireless companies, are to join forces to bid for mobile licences in Myanmar as investors and operators jostle to be among the first into the south-east Asian country.

The licences would allow Newbury, England-based Vodafone and China Mobile to build and operate a nationwide network for 15 years, they said in a statement.

Myanmar is expected to announce the licence winners on June 27. The government there said in February that 91 companies had formally expressed interest in the two licences.

Investors are piling into newly opened Myanmar, which has less than 10 per cent mobile penetration, after the government said it wanted to boost telecommunications coverage to as much as 80 per cent of the population by 2016.

Its economy is projected to grow 6.2 per cent this year, up from an anticipated 5.5 per cent increase in 2012, according to a World Bank report.

Myanmar is rich in precious stones, oil, natural gas and other mineral resources.

The country has been under military control since a coup d'etat in 1962. During this time, the UN and several other organisations have reported consistent and systematic human rights violations in the country, including genocide, the use of child soldiers, systematic rape, child labour, slavery, human trafficking and a lack of freedom of speech.

Following the release in 2011 of the country's most prominent human-rights activist, Aung San Suu Kyi, and since the military began relinquishing more of its control over the government, the country's foreign relationships have improved rapidly.

Trade and other sanctions, for example, imposed on Burma/Myanmar by the EU and US, have now been eased.

Irish Independent