Irresponsible sale of Telenor to Myanmar puts us all at risk

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As Myanmar’s crisis worsens, caused by the twin devastation of the military coup and the Covid-19 pandemic, we need safe and secure means of communication more than ever.

For independent media outlets like Myanmar Now, forced to operate in secrecy following the military’s sustained attack on journalism, mobile phone operators who collude with the junta can lead to prison sentences or worse for our reporters and others. Our fear is not only about the military’s ability to intercept calls and access metadata, but also to track the location of users through their phones, putting them at risk of becoming physical targets of relentless terror. of the junta.

So it came as a shock when Telenor – for many the most reliable mobile operator in the country – announced the rushed sale of its operations in Myanmar in Lebanon Group M1, a billionaire-owned company used to doing business with dictatorships, including the brutal Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria.

One of the group’s founding members, Najib Mikati, has been accused of corruption in his home country, raising new questions about the integrity of the company. We have little reason to trust the M1 Group to defend human rights or to operate without corruption.

Telenor has not been transparent about its deal with M1 Group. The company did not provide details on how it assessed the M1 group and subsequently identified it as a responsible buyer for its operations.

In addition, there has been no indication of any meaningful engagement of the Telenor Group with key Telenor Myanmar stakeholders regarding the sale, including the country’s independent media, civil society or customers.

The hasty and dark exit of the company contrasts with the wide consultations Telenor rose to prominence when it entered the market in 2014 under the government of former President General Thein Sein. This wave of controversial Norwegian engagements included a royal visit in Myanmar, major funding for peace process, and the broader pursuit of investment.

The line between diplomacy and economic interests has often been blurred for foreign countries working in Myanmar, including Norway. Former Norwegian Ambassador to Myanmar Katja Nordgaard was appointed as executive vice president of Telenor the same year the company entered the Myanmar market. In her capacity as Ambassador in 2012, she had joined Telenor executives at meetings with the government in Naypyitaw.

Telenor’s entry into the country was hailed by some as symbolic of the opening and condemned by others as a “reward” for Norway’s engagement with the repressive and undemocratic administration in power at the time.

“Now we see an ambassador who has played a key role in reversing Norway’s policy of putting human rights first and also reaping the financial benefits of moving closer to the Burmese government,” Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, noted in 2014.

Telenor, in turn, argued that it is clerked respect for human rights.

These rights were contested following genocidal military operations against the Rohingya population of Rakhine State in August 2017. Eyewitnesses reported that a telecommunications tower rented from Telenor was used by soldiers of the Burmese army as a sniper post from which to shoot fleeing Rohingya villagers in Alethankyaw, Maungdaw township; the bodies of many of these civilians are said to be buried below.

Telenor responded that he was “deeply concerned about the alleged crimes” and that he would initiate a “dialogue with the competent authorities” to “seek additional facts”. The company is the under investigation launched last year speak The Norwegian focal point of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development to determine whether Telenor violated due diligence rules by establishing a tower in the region.

In the aftermath of the February 1 military coup, the company appears to have suspended its commitment to “mitigate negative impacts on human rights”. Instead, it cuts its losses and flees Myanmar, handing its infrastructure over to an entity ready to come to an agreement with a junta that will arm it.

It is in times of crisis that a company’s and a country’s commitment to human rights is tested. Unless there is a change from this current trajectory, this is a test that Telenor and Norway will fail.

Being majority owned by the Norwegian state, Telenor is no ordinary private company. Telenor’s actions in Myanmar have a direct impact on the Government of Norway. The Norwegian government is ultimately responsible for the harm Telenor does.

The sale of Telenor Myanmar creates a political problem regarding regulatory approval in Myanmar and the illegitimacy of the coup council. Normally, approval would come from the Post and Telecommunications Department (PTD), Myanmar’s telecommunications regulatory body. However, the PTD is now under the control of a junta that the Norwegian government says it does not recognize.

How can Telenor get legal approval for its sale if the regulator is held hostage by the military? If Telenor were to proceed with junta approval, it would send a message that Norway recognizes and is willing to engage with this junta, further emboldening the military.

The Burmese public continues to widely condemn Telenor’s exit from the country. Last week 464 civil society organizations rightly called on Telenor to suspend the sale to M1 Group due to potential threats and corruption risks.

Telenor’s withdrawal is an abandonment of the Burmese people and suggests that the company is putting business calculations ahead of its ethical obligations. While protecting our human rights is a priority for Norway, its government must end this dangerous sale immediately, before it is too late.


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