A group of 45 global and Myanmar human rights, media and other organizations on Thursday called on Norway’s Telenor Group to halt the controversial sale of its Myanmar operation to M1 Group, a Lebanese company with ties to Myanmar’s junta.
“Our organizations are writing to express alarm regarding the announcement by Telenor Group to sell off their Myanmar business to M1 Group, and to strongly urge you to reconsider this decision and institute human rights safeguards,” the group, which includes ALTSEAN-Burma, Free Expression Myanmar, Global Witness, PEN America, Justice for Myanmar and dozens of other international and Myanmar organizations, said in a letter to Gunn Waersted, the chair of Telenor Group’s board.
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.
Saying they were “surprised and dismayed” by Telenor’s deal with M1, the organizations said the Norwegian state-controlled telecom giant had acted “without seeking the views of the civil society stakeholders with whom it previously significantly engaged on responsible business, including some of our undersigned organizations. Furthermore, we see no evidence that Telenor has undertaken the ‘credible assessment of potential adverse human rights impacts of disengagement’ from Myanmar required under the UNGPs [UN Principles on Business and Human Rights]. This appears to be a hurried ‘disposal’ rather than a responsible exit.”
While acknowledging the difficulties of remaining in the Myanmar telecom market after the Feb. 1 coup, in which Myanmar’s military overthrew the country’s elected government, the organizations told the Telenor chair that they “are of the view that … it might still be more positive from a human rights perspective for Telenor to stay in the market, rather than sell to a buyer such as the M1 Group. We have several serious concerns about M1 Group’s acquisition of your license, infrastructure, employees, and customers – including their data.”
Telenor confirmed in July 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. The call data records, according to Myanmar Now, include details of who you called, when and where. Together with the customer database, the junta stands to gain access to unprecedented data on individuals in Myanmar as a result of the sale.
Pointing to M1’s business dealings with authoritarian regimes in Syria, Sudan and Yemen, the organizations add in the letter: “We see no evidence that M1 Group intends to respect human rights” in Myanmar.
“We, therefore, call upon you to cancel or pause the sale of Telenor Myanmar to M1 Global and to conduct human rights due diligence that is transparent and constitutes the ‘credible impact assessment’ called for by the UNGPs,” the letter continues.
The letter follows a Dutch non-profit organization’s filing in late July of a complaint on behalf of hundreds of Myanmar-based civil society groups alleging that Telenor Group’s planned sale of the Myanmar unit to M1 violates the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s “responsible disengagement” rules.
In their letter to Waersted, the 45 organizations reminded her of the allegations in that complaint, filed by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, “that Telenor had ‘failed to conduct appropriate risk-based due diligence’, ‘failed to seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts potentially arising from the sale of its Myanmar operations’, ‘failed to meaningfully engage with relevant stakeholders’ and ‘not been transparent in its decision to disengage.’”
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.
Closer to home in Norway, in a recent editorial published under the headline “Telenor may endanger the opposition in Myanmar,” Norwegian business newspaper Dagens Næringsliv recently called for a suspension of Telenor Myanmar’s sale to M1 Group.
“The story of Telenor in Myanmar cannot end with the junta’s repressive apparatus using traffic data from Telenor to track down and crush the opposition in the country. If it is true that the customer database is part of the sale, the transfer of it to the new owners should be put on hold until it has been assessed whether it is in fact the case that it must be handed over in its entirety. If there is a possibility of not doing so, it must be used,” Dagens Næringsliv concluded.
On July 23, another Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten also published an editorial slamming Telenor over the Myanmar sale and apparent lack of preparation. “Telenor knew when they entered 2014 that this was a risky project. Therefore, it is strange that they do not seem to have been better prepared for such a crisis.”
Domestic criticism of Telenor’s Myanmar sale comes as Norway approaches a parliamentary election on Sept. 13, with incumbent Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservative Party seeking a third term in office. Norway’s parliament has not been in session since June 18, allowing Telenor to escape parliamentary scrutiny of its Myanmar sale.
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