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Google's Schmidt to preach Internet gospel in Myanmar

His controversial North Korea junket behind him, Eric Schmidt heads to a country that Reporters Without Borders last year listed as an "enemy of the Internet."

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt speaks at the CeBIT opening ceremonies.
Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt speaks at the opening ceremonies of CeBit 2012.
Stephen Shankland/CNET

If Eric Schmidt ever stops working for Google, he might consider penning some Lonely Planet travel guides.

Google's executive chairman is headed next week to Myanmar, a long-time isolationist state that recently has begun taking its first steps on the road to political and economic reform. Reuters reported the news this morning, calling the country, also known as Burma, "the last virgin territory for businesses in Asia" with a mobile phone penetration estimated at less than 10 percent.

Schmidt will address and meet with entrepreneurs, government officials, and others on March 22, according to Reuters.

An emphasis of the trip, as with Schmidt's controversial visit to North Korea in January, will be to extol the virtues of opening up access to the Internet to individuals and businesses.

Google confirmed the trip to Reuters with this statement: "Eric [Schmidt] is visiting several countries in Asia to connect with local partners and Googlers who are working to improve the lives of many millions of people across the region by helping them get online and access the world's information for the first time in the next few years."

Following his North Korea trip, Schmidt wrote this:

As the world becomes increasingly connected, the North Korean decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world and their economic growth. It will make it harder for them to catch up economically.

We made that alternative very, very clear. Once the internet starts in any country, citizens in that country can certainly build on top of it, but the government has to do one thing: open up the Internet first.

It was just a year ago this week that Reporters Without Borders included Myanmar among its "Enemies of the Internet" list of countries that most restrict Internet freedom, along with nine others including North Korea, Iran, and Syria. "There is one light of hope," the group wrote at the time. "The situation is improving in Burma, where the military have permitted the release of journalists and bloggers and the unblocking of news websites, but the legislative and technical tools for controlling and monitoring the Internet have yet to be dismantled."

Reporters Without Borders also said that the country could be poised to drop off the list if it continued to take the necessary steps toward openness. (Note: RWB's latest Enemies of the Internet list, released this week, took a different tack, focusing on Internet surveillance and just five countries, plus five corporations. Myanmar was not among those five countries, but the group offered this caveat: "The fact that countries that figured in the 2012 list of 'Enemies of the Internet' do not appear in the 2013 list does not mean there has been any improvement in online freedom of information in those countries.")

Last week, a much less high-profile delegation of U.S. technology companies visited Myanmar, with representatives from Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco Systems, and Intel, as well as from Google seeking to encourage opportunities for developing affordable access to the Internet along with a more transparent and efficient government.

In recent months, Myanmar's efforts at reforms have prompted the U.S. to financial and investment sanctions on the country, allowing among other things the first new U.S. investment in Burma in more than a decade.

Schmidt's trip next week will also take him to India.