Meet Myanmar Military-Linked Crony Taking Stake in Telenor Sale

By The Irrawaddy 15 February 2022

A company with close links to Myanmar’s military regime has been allowed to take a stake in Norwegian telecom operator Telenor’s business in Myanmar, following the sale of the telecom business to the Lebanese investment company M1 Group.

M1 Group and Shwe Byaing Phyu Co have established a venture called Investcom, which is expected to become the new owner of Telenor. Currently, Telenor has 18 million subscribers in Myanmar.

Shwe Byaing Phyu Group has been allowed to take a 49 per cent stake in the venture, with the possibility of that rising up to 80 per cent in the future, sources from the telecom industry told The Irrawaddy.

There are concerns that the personal data of the 18 million Telenor users in Myanmar will fall into the hands of the military regime if Shwe Byaing Phyu Group is allowed to take a stake in Telenor. Last year, the junta tried to force Telenor to install eavesdropping equipment on its network to monitor the communications of its users.

Myanmar’s pro-democracy activists have launched an online petition calling on Telenor to stop the sale of its subsidiary in Myanmar to a military-linked company and to safeguard users’ data.

Last week, Myanmar’s parallel National Unity Government’s acting president Duwa Lashi La wrote to Norway’s prime minister Jonas Gahr Store, saying that “the sale of the Telenor Group is not acceptable and should not be approved” because it will endanger the security of the 18.3 million Telenor customers.

The acting president urged Norway to respect Myanmar’s people and to ignore decisions made by the illegal military regime and scrap plans to sell the business.

Who is U Thein Win Zaw?

Owned by U Thein Win Zaw, Shwe Byaing Phyu Group has interests in gas stations and gem mining. But the 59-year-old U Thein Win Zaw is also a director of the Mahar Yoma Public Company, part of a consortium that has a stake in the military-owned telecom operator Mytel.

His business was reportedly established in 1996 and operates in partnership with the military-owned Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd in mining and fuel importation and distribution.

U Thein Win Zaw allegedly amassed a fortune from the large-scale smuggling of fuel by sea via southern Myanmar’s Tanintharyi Region and Mon State, and has close links with the Myanmar Navy’s senior leadership.

Navy vessels even provided security for U Thein Win Zaw’s fuel smuggling fleet, according to sources, and he was known as the “owner of floating filling stations” among fuel importers and distributors.

He maintained good ties with successive Navy chiefs from Vice Admiral Soe Thein and Admiral Thura Thet Swe to Admiral Tin Aung San.

“U Thein Win Zaw is closer to U Soe Thein. The two are confidants,” a businessman told The Irrawaddy.

U Soe Thein became the Minister for Industry after he retired as navy chief in 2008. He served as the chairman of the Myanmar Investment Commission under President U Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government from 2010 to 2013, and then as Minister of the President’s Office until power was transferred to the National League for Democracy (NLD) government in March 2016.

The Vice Admiral publicly supported last year’s coup, when the Myanmar military cancelled the results of the 2020 general election and seized power from the civilian NLD government. After the coup, U Soe Thein wrote a book in which he criticized the NLD administration and supported the military takeover.

Shwe Byaing Phyu Group is a new face in Myanmar’s telecom industry, but its acquisition of Telenor Myanmar is not a surprise given the fact that the business has the backing of former navy chief Admiral Tin Aung San, who is now the regime’s transport and communications minister.

After the February 1 coup, then Navy chief Admiral Tin Aung San was demoted and became the Minister for Transport and Communications in the junta’s cabinet, as well as a member of the regime’s administrative body, the State Administration Council.

However, U Thein Win Zaw’s relationship with current Navy chief Admiral Moe Aung has soured as a result of a conflict of interest with the IGE Group, a company owned by a brother of Admiral Moe Aung, which also vied for a stake in Telenor Myanmar, according to a former business partner of U Thein Win Zaw.

U Thein Win Zaw is one of the few business tycoons who has been allowed to visit the residence of junta boss Senior General Min Aung Hlaing since the coup. U Thein Win Zaw’s wife, Daw Tin Latt Min, is part of the inner circle of the wives of the generals. She is also a shareholder in the military-owned Forest Products Joint Venture Corporation Ltd, which has been sanctioned by the European Union.

Shwe Byaing Phyu Group is more of a wholesaler of fuel to gold and mineral mines in central and northern Myanmar than a fuel retailer.

Normally, the business wins tenders offered by the Myanmar Navy to supply fuel for navy vessels, and when captains embezzle the supplied fuel, they normally sell it back to U Thein Win Zaw’s company, according to a source from the fuel industry.

“He is a good talker and keeps a low profile. He likes to invest in those with the potential to become senior officers in the navy. He would buy apartments at Thanlyin Star City [a luxury housing development on the outskirts of Yangon] for potential senior officers,” the source told The Irrawaddy.

Considering the fact he has come out into the open to acquire Telenor, after previously keeping a low profile, business sources suggested to The Irrawaddy that U Thein Win Zaw might be acting as a front man for generals and their families who want to own Telenor.

When one of Asia’s top oil traders Hin Leong Trading Pte Ltd went bankrupt last year amid the steep decline in global oil prices caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, U Thein Win Zaw lost cash deposits his company had given the Singapore-based oil company. Some generals then subsidized him, a business source told The Irrawaddy.

“I heard U Thein Win Zaw suffered quite a loss. Later, some generals funded him and bought shares in his company,” said the source.

Amid the reports of U Thein Win Zaw’s ties with the regime, Singapore is limiting fuel sales to his company and reducing business dealings with it, said sources in the domestic fuel industry.

Shwe Byaing Phyu Group did not respond to The Irrawaddy’s email.

Telenor is already under pressure in Myanmar, after a local user filed a complaint with Norway’s data protection authority to investigate the company’s planned sale of its Myanmar operations to make sure that his rights under Norway’s data protection law are not violated.

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