Junta’s Demand to Spy on Customers Prompts Telenor to Leave Myanmar

By The Irrawaddy 15 September 2021

The Norwegian parent company of telecom operator Telenor Myanmar said Wednesday it could not maintain its presence in Myanmar, as doing so would require it to help the military regime conduct surveillance of its clients.

“Developments since the military takeover made it clear to us that our continued presence would require Telenor Myanmar to activate intercept equipment for the use of Myanmar authorities,” Telenor Group said in a statement. The company said the use of such equipment is subject to Norwegian and international sanctions. “Operating such equipment in this situation would constitute a breach of our values and standards as a company. Ultimately, this conflict between local and international law and human rights principles makes continued presence in Myanmar impossible for Telenor Group,” it said.

Telenor announced on July 8 that it had agreed to sell its Myanmar operations to M1, which was added to the Burma Campaign UK’s Dirty List in 2019 for doing business with the Myanmar military. M1 is a major shareholder in Irrawaddy Green Towers, which has almost 4,000 telecom towers across the country and works for military-owned telecom operator Mytel.

The move prompted criticism from rights groups, who said Telenor had failed to consult civil society stakeholders on the sale, and pointed to M1’s business dealings with authoritarian regimes in Syria, Sudan and Yemen. In particular, they raised concerns over Telenor’s acknowledgement that as part of the deal it would transfer the call records of its more than 18 million subscribers to the Lebanese company. Rights activists say allowing the junta to access such information would be dangerous, pointing out that phone subscribers in Myanmar must supply ID cards and addresses when registering SIM cards.

In Wednesday’s statement, Telenor Group said it “shares these concerns and has made all possible efforts to stay in Myanmar,” but the junta’s directive to implement intercept equipment made its presence in the country “untenable”.

“Having worked actively to avoid activation of intercept equipment, Telenor Myanmar Ltd. has until now not activated this equipment and will not do so voluntarily,” the company said. “We believe a sale is the least detrimental solution for the Myanmar society, as it will maintain the connectivity of our 18 million subscribers as well as critical services such as banks and hospitals, and ensure continued employment for our staff and broader value chain in a difficult time. Our efforts are now focused on obtaining regulatory approvals for the sale of Telenor Myanmar Ltd.”

Telenor Group has been one of Myanmar’s largest investors since launching its operations in the country in 2014. It reported 18.2 million subscribers in its first quarter financial report for 2021. The company agreed to sell its Myanmar operation to M1 for US$105 million. M1 Group is owned by the billionaire Mikati family, who have a history of doing business in authoritarian countries and face unresolved allegations of corruption and terrorist financing.

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