Canada sanctions Myanmar entity enabling junta surveillance while Norwegian firm eludes accountability

In selling its Myanmar subsidiary to a regime-connected conglomerate, the Norwegian phone service provider Telenor allegedly compromised sensitive data on millions of subscribers, potentially exposing them to targeted persecution

The Canadian government imposed sanctions Tuesday on a Myanmar conglomerate that provides revenue and surveillance technology to the military regime. However, despite urging from rights advocacy groups, the Norwegian company that initially armed the conglomerate with the surveillance resources has yet to face consequences.

The Shwe Byain Phyu Group (SBP) and its chairman Thein Win Zaw were among 61 individuals and entities added to Canada’s Myanmar sanctions list on October 31 as part of what the Canadian government described as “a broader strategy seeking to exert coordinated, sequenced and targeted pressure on the Myanmar military regime.” The newly specified individuals and entities were found to be “performing key functions” on the junta’s behalf, it added, including the supply of weapons, resources, and revenue.

While mostly dealing in petroleum, gems, and timber, SBP achieved international notoriety in March 2022 after acquiring 80 percent of the shares in a Myanmar-based subsidiary of the Norwegian telecommunications company Telenor, one of Myanmar’s leading internet and phone service providers, which has since rebranded locally to “Atom”. 

Activists and human rights groups voiced apprehension at the time that the sale would allow SBP to access past call data for Telenor Myanmar’s customer base of more than 18 million. More troublingly, they noted, SBP chair Thein Win Zaw had close ties to Myanmar’s high-ranking generals and would now be able to relay customer data to the military council. 

Call data records include the time and date of a call, its duration, location and the phone numbers of the involved parties, all of which were potentially useful to the military regime in identifying and targeting political opponents. Even before the sale to SBP though, Telenor was alleged to have complied with over 200 junta requests for sensitive user data.

Security concerns surrounding the sale intensified a month after the sale, when reporting by Myanmar Now revealed that SBP’s acquisition of Telenor Myanmar would include a “Lawful Interception” system—a surveillance and data collection process activated and implemented by a telecoms provider—which could enable the military to spy on millions of phone and internet users in real time. 

Leaked documents seen by Myanmar Now showed that Telenor purchased the system from China’s Huawei in February 2018 and installed it in May of the same year, within weeks of the European Union (EU) prohibiting the transfer of surveillance technology to Myanmar.

Telenor Group CEO Sigve Brekke later denied these allegations, claiming in media interviews that the Lawful Interception system had not been activated following the final approval of the sale. But the human rights monitoring group Justice For Myanmar (JFM) nonetheless condemned the sale of Telenor Myanmar as “irresponsible.”

“Despite all the warnings, Telenor has proceeded to effectively provide the terrorist military junta with lawful interception technology and expose the metadata of more than 18 million Telenor Myanmar users,” the group’s spokesperson Yadanar Maung told Myanmar Now shortly after SBP’s acquisition of Telenor Myanmar.

Yadanar Maung called for Telenor Group’s management and Norway’s trade minister Jan Christian Vestre to be held accountable for sanctions violations, for making the interception technology available, and for any crimes and abuses by the Myanmar regime that might result from the “reckless deal.”

Following this alleged negligence, neither the Telenor Group management nor Vestre have faced legal consequences or otherwise been held accountable by the EU or Norwegian government. Moreover, while the EU, the United Kingdom (UK) and United States (US) have sanctioned other entities in which Thein Win Zaw owns shares, SBP had not, until Tuesday, been subject to sanctions by any Western governments. 

JFM welcomed the change to Canada’s sanctions regime, called on other governments to follow suit, and more specifically pointed to the Norwegian government’s and Telenor’s failure to address or remedy the consequences of the company’s “irresponsible” exit from Myanmar.

“It is a welcome move from Canada to sanction Shwe Byain Phyu Group and its chairperson, Thein Win Zaw. Shwe Byain Phyu is a key business partner of the illegal Myanmar military junta that provides it with revenue and, through its purchase of Telenor Myanmar, access to user data and surveillance capabilities,” Yadanar Maung told Myanmar Now in a statement on Wednesday.

“Canada’s sanctions designation should send a strong message to Telenor Group and the Norwegian government that the company’s divestment was grossly irresponsible and still requires remedy. The EU, US, UK, and Australia should follow with sanctions on Shwe Byain Phyu and all other sources of funds and arms to the illegal junta.”

SBP acquired Telenor Myanmar through a joint venture called Investcom, in partnership with the Lebanese holding company M1 Group. M1, which also has ties to the junta and currently owns the remaining 20 percent stake in Telenor Myanmar, initially took over the telecoms company’s Burmese operations in July 2021 in an acquisition that generated outrage from rights advocacy groups. 

Weeks after the hasty $105m deal between Telenor and M1 was finalised, hundreds of Myanmar civil society organisations filed a formal complaint with the National Contact Point (NCP) for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Norway, accusing the telecoms giant of “irresponsible disengagement” from the country. 

The NCP, a Norwegian government-appointed agency tasked with investigating companies’ compliance with the OECD’s responsible business guidelines, had also mediated a previous complaint against Telenor filed by the Rohingya genocide survivors’ advocacy group Committee Seeking Justice for Alethankyaw (CSJA) in late 2019. 

The complaint, which concerned an incident in which the Myanmar military used a Telenor tower to fire on Rohingya civilians, alleged that the company had failed to prevent the risk of complicity with human rights violations when it expanded operations in Rakhine State. When the NCP cleared Telenor of responsibility for the incident in August 2022, the CSJA responded by calling the agency, “a toothless lapdog unfit to seriously handle a case involving a Norwegian firm’s connections to war crimes.”

The new complaint against Telenor, filed in July 2022 by the Netherlands-based Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) submitted the complaint on behalf of the 474 Myanmar groups, who collectively alleged that the Telenor Group’s sale of its Myanmar operations to M1 violated OECD standards for a responsible exit, and potentially exposed regime opponents to increased military surveillance.

“Telenor has failed to conduct appropriate risk-based due diligence and has failed to seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts potentially arising from the sale of its Myanmar operations,” the complaint to the NPC said. It further accused Telenor of not being transparent regarding the details of the sale, and failing to “meaningfully engage with relevant stakeholders.”

M1 has previously drawn criticism for running mobile networks under authoritarian regimes in Syria, Sudan, and other countries where state surveillance of the general populace is routine. The Myanmar civil society groups’ complaint to the NPC described M1 as an unsuitable partner for Telenor’s handover, based on the NPC guidelines to which Telenor is subject as well as United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. 

The later sale to SBP also met with opposition. In early February 2022, dozens of Telenor Myanmar employees sent a letter calling on the chair of Telenor’s board of directors, Gunn Wærsted, to “immediately intervene to terminate the sale.” The letter accused the company of a “lack of transparency with employees” regarding the exit.

Telenor Senior Vice President of Communications Thomas Midteide told Myanmar Now by email on November 2 that the company “carried out thorough assessments on available alternatives in a deteriorating situation” taking into account the human rights impact of the sale, but in the end “didn’t have any other options than leaving Myanmar, and landed on an agreement with M1.” 

In the complaint to the NPC, SOMO senior researcher Joseph Wilde-Ramsing described Telenor’s disengagement from Myanmar as “disappointing,” given the rights-based standards that Norwegian businesses are reputed to abide by.

“When entering risky contexts like Myanmar, companies like Telenor should be mindful of more than just profits and be prepared with a responsible exit plan,” he said in an attributed quote in the complaint. “Telenor’s lack of due diligence and preparation does not give it licence to leave the people of Myanmar in the lurch.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article said Myanmar civil society organisations and SOMO filed a complaint against Telenor with the OECD. In fact, the complaint was filed with the OECD’s National Contact Point (NCP) in Norway, a government-appointed agency that oversees compliance with responsible business practices according to OECD guidelines.

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