Telenor Under Pressure for Its Myanmar Subsidiary Sale

By The Irrawaddy 9 February 2022

Telecoms operator Telenor is under new pressure as a customer in Myanmar

has filed a complaint with Norway’s data protection authority to investigate the company’s planned sale of the business to a Lebanese company and its local partner to make sure his rights under the country’s data protection law are not violated.

The complaint comes at a time when Telenor is planning to sell its Myanmar business to Lebanon’s M1 and Myanmar regime-linked Shwe Byain Phyu Group after the telecom company was forced by the junta last year to install eavesdropping equipment.

If installed, the personal data of 18 million Telenor users in Myanmar would be in the hands of the regime, which came to power through a military coup last year and is crushing the country’s pro-democracy movement.

The Netherlands-based Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), which is supporting the Myanmar citizen’s complaint, said that Norway has a responsibility to prevent a junta-linked company from gaining control of the personal data of Myanmar users, among whom are pro-democracy activists, human rights defenders, journalists and other at-risk individuals.

“Telenor Group and its majority shareholder, the Norwegian government, have an obligation to protect these individuals from harm, which include persecution, torture, and even extrajudicial killings,” said Joseph Wilde-Ramsing, a senior researcher at SOMO.

According to the Financial Times, Telenor said none of its data from Myanmar was handled in Norway or the EU and that Norwegian data protection regulations did not apply to it.

“The customer data of Telenor Myanmar’s customers is handled locally by Telenor Myanmar in compliance with regulatory obligations,” the company said.

Advocacy group Justice for Myanmar urged Norway’s government to block Telenor Myanmar’s sale, warning that it would be “complicit with [the] terrorist junta”.

Norway’s past engagement policy 

After Myanmar began a democratic transition in 2011 under the military-installed civilian government of Thein Sein, Oslo quickly reengaged with and began to support Norwegian business deals in the country.

Following then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre’s two-day visit to Myanmar in January 2012, Oslo subsequently indicated it would no longer urge Norwegian companies to refrain from trade and investment in Myanmar.

In June 2013, Myanmar granted licenses to Norway’s Telenor and Ooredoo of Qatar to set up the country’s first foreign-owned mobile phone networks.

In 2014, Katja Nordgaard, Norway’s ambassador to Myanmar from 2010 to 2013, was appointed executive vice president at Telenor Group. During her tenure as ambassador, Nordgaard oversaw the normalization of relations with Myanmar’s reformist government and helped secure deals between the government and Norwegian firms, including for the company that that she would now be joining.

Now, Telenor has been warned by Myanmar activists that the sale of its Myanmar business will endanger the company’s customers by putting their personal data within reach of the junta.

“In such a difficult and volatile security situation, there are no simple solutions,” the company said.

“We have to balance several difficult considerations and have come to the conclusion that a sale is the least detrimental solution for our employees, customers and the community.”

As Telenor has been tightlipped about its sale, Myanmar Now reported that Telenor’s sale of its Myanmar subsidiary to a joint partnership between the Lebanon-based M1 Group and local conglomerate Shwe Byain Phyu would be completed by Feb. 15. The partnership is named Investcom Myanmar, a company that has not yet been registered. Shwe Byain Phyu, a military-linked gems and petrol conglomerate, will be the majority owner of Investcom Myanmar.

The founder of Shwe Byain Phyu is Thein Win Zaw, a low-profile businessman who has monopolized the petrol business in Myanmar. The tycoon developed strong business relations with then commander-in-chief of the Myanmar Navy Soe Thane. Since then, Thein Win Zaw has developed a close business connection with incoming navy chief Lieutenant General Tin Aung San.

Soe Thane served as senior minister in the Thein Sein administration and was one of its key cabinet ministers.

In 2015, Lt-Gen Tin Aung San became commander-in-chief of the Myanmar Navy and in 2021, two days after the coup, he was appointed as the minister of transport and communications.

The company recently acquired a 49-percent stake in Investcom Pte Ltd, a company created by the M1 Group that was registered in Singapore after Telenor announced last year that it was selling its Myanmar unit to M1 for US$105 million. The sale will include the transfer of personal data of Telenor Myanmar customers.

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