‘No good alternatives’ to sale of Myanmar operation, says Telenor 

Norwegian telecom giant Telenor Group said on Friday that there were “no good alternatives” to the sale of its Myanmar subsidiary amid mounting security issues faced by the company following the military coup last year. 

Telenor Group, majority-owned by the Norwegian government, is under fire from international rights groups to protect the personal data of its more than 18 million Myanmar customers—data which is at risk of exposure to the junta through the controversial sale of the Telenor’s Myanmar unit to military-linked entities.

The sensitive subscriber data includes the times, dates and locations of calls and text messages—information that could potentially be used by the military to target its political opponents. 

Legal experts and human rights activists have therefore urged Telenor to protect the metadata of its customers either by putting the sale on hold or deleting the data before the sale. 

In response to these calls, Jørgen C. Arentz Rostrup, Telenor’s executive vice president and head of its Asia operations, repeated the company’s previous statements to the media that shutting down the Myanmar unit and deleting customer data would put the company’s employees at considerable risk.

“Data must be stored in accordance with local legislation and license terms, both in the event of a sale and if the license is returned. That means there are no good alternatives to a sale,” Rostrup said in the statement, referring to Myanmar laws that require local telecom operators to store user data for a period of five years. 

The Myanmar junta last year barred Telenor leaders from leaving the country as long as the regulatory process with the military authorities is ongoing, Rostrup explained.

Telenor Myanmar is due to be sold to Lebanon’s M1 Group, which has been criticised for working with despotic regimes worldwide. The Myanmar military initially blocked the sale when M1 was the sole buyer, but the Lebanese company agreed to transfer a controlling stake in the venture to a Myanmar firm named Shwe Byain Phyu, which has strong ties to the military. 

Leaked documents show that the final owner of Telenor Myanmar will be Investcom Myanmar, a joint venture between M1 and Shwe Byain Phyu.

Rostrup insisted that after considering potential alternatives to the sale, including actions recommended by industry stakeholders and activists, Telenor had decided that selling the business would be the “least detrimental solution” for its customers, employees and Myanmar society.

“Several voices have put forward alternative paths for Telenor in Myanmar, all of which involve aspects that have even greater negative consequences than this sale. They are not better solutions when considering all aspects of these alternatives,” his statement said. 

Rostrup added that the military takeover in February last year had left Telenor with no choice but to exit Myanmar and sell their operation after the junta asked all telecom companies in the country to install intercept equipment in the wake of the coup, which Telenor maintains it has not complied with.

He insisted that no telecom company can maintain international standards under military rule in Myanmar. 

“This is a deeply serious situation for all mobile customers in Myanmar, and the responsibility for this lies with the authorities.”

Telenor’s sale plan of its Myanmar operation sparked debates in the Norwegian parliament last week. Two Norwegian lawmakers asked the country’s industry minister whether the government would use its position as Telenor’s majority owner to prevent the distribution of data and if they had considered putting the sale on hold. The Norwegian state’s stake in the company is managed by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries. 

Minister Jan Christian Vestre told parliament on Wednesday that Norway’s government would not be able to prevent a transfer of user data from Telenor’s Myanmar subsidiary to the country’s military junta following the sale of the unit.

“It is not the government as an owner, but the company’s board and management that must make these decisions,” Vestre is quoted as saying in a Reuters report. “With this in mind we have not asked Telenor to postpone the sale,” he added.

Free Expression Myanmar (FEM) suggested in a statement on Wednesday that Telenor Myanmar’s sale may in fact be illegal under Norwegian law, requiring the government to cancel or pause the process to allow for human rights due diligence to be conducted.

The legal reform group explained that Norway’s Sanctions Act—and the EU Council Regulations implemented under it—bars the sale of “dual-use technology,” or technology that has both civilian and military uses, in Myanmar if there is a risk that it may fall into military hands. 

“Telenor’s Myanmar operations are a ‘dual-use technology’ under EU Council Regulations because the infrastructure could be used for military purposes to intercept communications,” FEM’s statement said, emphasising that Shwe Byain Phyu’s reported military ties suggest that the unit may be intended for Myanmar army use. 

“Telenor’s position to protect its corporate values and to avoid contravening EU and Norwegian sanctions is laudable. However, there is now a serious risk that Telenor may contravene those same sanctions through selling,” FEM said. 

Amid calls for the halt of the sale, a Norwegian civil society network also submitted a complaint against Telenor Group’s leadership with police on February 11 urging them to probe into whether the company’s sale plan of its Myanmar subsidiary is in violation of Norway’s laws on “crimes against humanity.”

In an interview with Myanmar Now on the same day, Norwegian judge Hanne Sophie Greve warned that in the worst case scenario, Telenor and the Norwegian authorities could be liable for complicity in crimes against humanity if the personal data of millions of Myanmar users were released to the military junta. 

She recommended that Telenor either sell to a responsible buyer not connected to the Myanmar military, or, if a responsible buyer cannot be found, close down their network.

Despite the controversies surrounding the sale, Telenor has also been under scrutiny of international rights groups and activists for its previous compliance with the military authorities.

Myanmar Now has previously reported that the junta-controlled Ministry of Transport and Communications made hundreds of information requests to Telenor over the past 12 months, including records of calls, call locations and the last known location of a number.

According to a source with inside knowledge of the situation, Telenor complied with all of the ministry’s requests despite concerns that they were based on information obtained by the junta through torture. The source feared that the mobile numbers mentioned in the ministry requests were extracted during the interrogation of political detainees. 

Since seizing power in February last year, the Myanmar military junta has killed more than 1,500 people and detained some 12,000 more in an attempt to quell resistance to army rule, according to data compiled by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Related Articles

Back to top button