Myanmar Companies Linked to Regime Leaders Bid to Acquire Telenor

By The Irrawaddy 2 December 2021

With growing uncertainty over the Telenor Group’s plan to sell its telecom business in Myanmar to the Lebanese investment company M1 Group, businesses owned by military cronies are now vying to acquire Telenor’s Myanmar operation.

Norwegian telecom giant Telenor announced in July that it was selling its local operation to the M1 Group, which is owned by the family of Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, for 187.2 billion kyats (US$105 million). 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.

Telenor confirmed its plans in September, however, saying it could not maintain its presence in Myanmar, as doing so would require it to help the military regime conduct surveillance of its clients.

The planned sale to M1 has since stalled, after the junta indicated it favored at least part-ownership by a local company.

Among the companies that have expressed an interest in taking a stake in Telenor Myanmar are Amara Communications Co. Ltd., a subsidiary of the IGE Group owned by U Nay Aung, a brother of Myanmar Navy chief Admiral Moe Aung, and the KT Group owned by Jonathan Kyaw Thaung, which has partnerships with military-linked businessmen including U Aung Pyae Sone, the son of coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

Shwe Byain Phyu Group, a company backed by former navy chief Admiral Tin Aung San, has also shown interest in Telenor Myanmar, leading to a potential conflict of interest with IGE Group, with one company linked to the current navy chief and the other with links to the previous one.

Admiral Tin Aung San served as navy chief until the junta ousted the civilian government in its February 1 coup. Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing then appointed him as the Minister for Transportation and Communications. Admiral Tin Aung San is also a member of the military regime’s governing body, the State Administration Council.

Shwe Byain Phyu Group has interests in gas stations and gem mining. The business is owned by U Thein Win Zaw, a director of the Mahar Yoma Public Company, part of a consortium that has a stake in the military-owned telecom operator Mytel.

Amara Communications Co. Ltd. has confirmed to The Irrawaddy that it is interested in acquiring a stake in Telenor Myanmar if the opportunity arises.

The Shwe Byain Phyu Group reportedly also has links with U Tint Lwin, who served as deputy minister at the Ministry of Communications, Posts and Telegraphs under U Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government. U Tint Lwin and Admiral Tin Aung San have very close ties, according to sources from the ministry.

“Those who want to acquire [Telenor Myanmar] will vie for it. There are local companies that are after it. There might also be foreign companies [that want to acquire a stake in Telenor Myanmar], because the price that Telenor is asking from M1 is quite interesting,” a businessman who previously worked in a senior position in a telecommunications company told The Irrawaddy.

Shwe Byaing Phyu Group has proposed obtaining a 75 per cent stake in partnership with M1 to become the major stakeholder in Telenor Myanmar, according to a director from a telecommunications technology company.

“M1 was told to find a local company to partner with. At the same time, companies close to them [the military regime] are in talks with M1,” he said.

A spokesperson for M1 declined to comment. A person who answered the phone listed on Shwe Byaing Phyu’s website said it was the wrong number.

The regime’s Transportation and Communications Ministry was supposed to make its decision within two months after Telenor requested to sell its Myanmar business to M1 in July. However, the ministry has yet to respond.

“I don’t think it [the sale] is taking so long just because of the desire to include a local company. [The regime] can first approve the sale to M1, and then allow a local company to take a stake later. I think that there might be other things going on that we don’t know about,” said the businessman who previously worked in a senior position at a telecommunications company.

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