More Than 400 Myanmar Civil Groups Say Telenor Sale Breaks OECD Rules

By The Irrawaddy 27 July 2021

A Dutch non-profit organization on Tuesday filed a complaint on behalf of hundreds of Myanmar-based civil society groups alleging that Norwegian state-owned telecoms giant Telenor Group’s planned sale of its Myanmar unit to a junta-linked company violates the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s “responsible disengagement” rules.

Norway is one of 38 members of the OECD, a group of high-income mostly democratic, pro-market economies.

In the complaint, the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) contends on behalf of the 474 civil society organizations that Telenor failed to take steps to assess the risks posed by the sale, or to reduce its potential human rights impacts; that it failed to “meaningfully engage with relevant stakeholders in relation to the sale”; and that the firm’s decision-making process in divesting its Myanmar operation lacked transparency. The complaint, which was submitted to Norway’s National Contact Point for the OECD, alleges that these amount to violations of the OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, a set of legally non-binding recommendations on responsible business conduct addressed by the group’s member governments.

The parent company announced on July 8 that it had agreed to sell its Myanmar operations to the Lebanese investment firm M1 Group, 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. In its statement announcing the sale, Telenor Group’s CEO Sigve Brekke attributed his company’s departure from Myanmar to “people, security, regulatory and compliance reasons” in an increasingly challenging post-coup environment.

Concerns over the sale increased this week when Telenor confirmed 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.

Since toppling Myanmar’s democratically elected government in a coup on Feb. 1, the military junta has brutally cracked down on protesters and opponents. As of Monday, it had killed 934 people and at least 5,370 political prisoners remained detained, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

In a statement on Tuesday, SOMO said “Civil society members involved with the complaint have explained their need for responsible telecommunications businesses that will push back, rather than collude, with repression by the authoritarian government.”

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 including Syria, Sudan and Yemen, and face unresolved allegations of corruption and terrorist financing. “The complainants do not trust that M1 Group will uphold their human rights responsibilities or do business with integrity,” SOMO said.

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