Belgian Firm Withdraws from Myanmar Military-backed Mytel

By Moe Myint 13 August 2019

YANGON—Belgian company Newtec’s decision to stop doing business with Myanmar military-backed Mytel will not seriously impact the company’s more than 15 million SIM-card holders across the country, according to Communication & Commerce (Com & Com), a technology and equipment supplier to Mytel.

On Aug. 5, the UN’s Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (FFM) published a list of companies, including nearly 60 foreign firms, that jointly or indirectly do businesses with the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw). Newtec was among the many firms mentioned. FFM urged foreign and domestic companies to financially isolate the military’s business empire, which covers banking to brewing to bus services, in response to the Army’s actions against the Rohingya community in Rakhine State.

Mytel, the country’s fourth-largest telecom operator, is a joint venture between Myanmar Army-backed Star High Company, which holds 48 percent, Vietnam’s Defense Ministry, which holds 28 percent, and Myanmar National Telecom Holding Public Ltd, a group of 11 local companies with a combined 23-percent stake.

In an announcement following the FFM report, Newtec said it would “follow the recommendations by the UN and stop commercial ties with Mytel linked to the MEC [Myanmar Economic Corporation] through its corporate structure.”

Until recently, Com & Com purchased Newtec’s satellite platform and products and supplied it to Mytel’s network to boost connectivity in hard-to-reach remote areas and places lacking optical fiber structures.

Com & Com deputy chief executive officer Ko Win Htet Aung told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that his company had not yet officially been informed of Newtec’s decision through the proper channels, and had made a formal request to Newtec for further explanation. He said that Mytel uses Newtec satellite modems in rural areas, so Mytel SIM users in remote regions will lack network service once Newtec cuts its services.

He declined to estimate the percentage of Mytel’s SIM users that rely on satellite communications, but insisted the number was not large, and that commercial users would not be widely affected.

Calls from The Irrawaddy to Mytel public relations official U Zaw Min Oo went unanswered on Tuesday. Mytel Company chairman U Khin Maung Soe briefly replied that his company has not yet received official confirmation from Newtec of its plan to cut ties.

It remains unclear when Newtec’s cutting of technical support and supply of satellite communications equipment to Mytel woult take effect. Newtec staff declined to reply to specific questions, saying members of the management were away from the office.

Newtec said in its statement that it would deny any future requests by Com & Com for the use of its products and services in the Mytel network. In addition, it stated that it was not directly approached by Mytel but by Com & Com, a joint venture company founded between Terabit Wave (Myanmar) and OSB JSC (Vietnam). In 2018, Com & Com won Mytel’s tender process to develop Mytel’s 4G networks.

Newtec said, “We will never knowingly sell to any organization or company linked to the Tatmadaw’s campaign of violence across Rakhine State and the atrocities committed against the Rohingya.” Myanmar military operations in 2017 expelled more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees to neighboring Bangladesh from northern Rakhine State.

The UN described the army’s actions toward the Rohingya community as having “genocidal intent” and rights groups have called for army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and top military generals to be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court  for their roles in the crisis.

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