Norwegian civil society network reports Telenor Myanmar sale to police 

A Norwegian civil society network submitted a complaint against the leadership of telecom multinational Telenor Group with the police on Friday, urging them to probe into whether the company’s sale plan of its Myanmar subsidiary is in violation of “crimes against humanity.”

The Norwegian Forum for Development and Environment (ForUM), a network of 50 Norwegian civil society organisations, demanded that the country’s police force and attorney general look into the controversial sale of Telenor Myanmar, which has faced a pushback from local and international rights activists over concerns of data security. 

ForUM asked the country’s law enforcement body to investigate the actions of Telenor Group’s chief executive officer Sigve Brekke and Gunn Wærsted, chair of the group’s board of directors, regarding the sale. It referred to possible violations of Chapter 16 of the Norwegian Penal Code on genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The Norwegian government is the majority owner of Telenor Group. 

Telenor Myanmar is due to be sold to Lebanon’s M1 Group this month. M1, which has been criticised for working with despotic regimes worldwide, will then transfer a controlling stake in the venture to a Myanmar firm named Shwe Byain Phyu, which has strong ties to the military, industry sources have told Myanmar Now. 

The sale will see Telenor hand over the sensitive personal data of its more than 18 million subscribers, including the times, dates and locations of calls and text messages—information the junta can use to target its opponents.

The Myanmar military overthrew the country’s elected civilian government in a coup on February 1 last year. Since then, the junta has killed more than 1,500 people and detained some 12,000 in an attempt to quell resistance to army rule.

“In the situation Myanmar is in, teledata must be considered a weapon,” Kathrine Sund-Henriksen, general manager of the ForUM, said.

“This is an urgent matter, as it is a matter of a few days before the sale is completed, with the serious consequences it can have for millions of Telenor customers in Myanmar,” she added.

ForUM advisor Diego Alexander Foss also said that Telenor’s release of data in Myanmar may have already contributed to and could lead to further arrests, torture and executions, citing media reports.

According to the Norwegian Penal Code, the penalty for a crime against humanity is imprisonment for a term not exceeding 30 years.

Telenor Group spokesperson Cathrine Stang Lund confirmed on Saturday that the company had been notified of ForUM’s legal complaint. 

“Since the military takeover in Myanmar, Telenor has continuously made evaluations with regards to sanctions, human rights, privacy, and the safety of our staff and partners,” she told Myanmar Now, adding, “In line with these evaluations, we are of the view that there is no basis for the police report.”

In an interview with Myanmar Now on Friday, 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.

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.

Greve argues that it is the responsibility of the company’s leadership and owners, which includes the Norwegian government, to under no circumstances contribute to possible crimes against humanity in Myanmar.

“It is for Telenor to produce the evidence that the buyer is acceptable, that is, there can be no suspicion that the buyer will share the personal data of the network’s 18 million Myanmar customers with the military,” she told Myanmar Now.

Myanmar Now has previously reported that even before the sale, the junta-controlled Ministry of Transport and Communications (MOTC) made at least 200 requests to Telenor over the past 12 months for information, including records of calls, call locations and the last known location of a number.

In a number of the MOTC’s recent requests to Telenor, which Myanmar Now has seen, some were for the one-month call histories of customers, while others asked for four- to six-month call histories. 

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.

“We can generally say that the mobile numbers mentioned in the data requests were extracted during the interrogation of political detainees. So we can say that these numbers really are blood-stained,” the source said.

The Telenor spokesperson justified the company’s compliance with those requests by saying: “Violating or not complying with directives issued under the existing legal framework, would have severe and completely unacceptable consequences for our employees.” 

The acting President of Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) Duwa Lashi La called on Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre in an open letter on Thursday to intervene to prevent the sale of the Myanmar unit of Telenor to the junta-linked company.   

The acting president said Norway’s government should use its position as Telenor’s largest shareholder to place a request for the decision to sell to be reversed or deferred.

Norway’s foreign ministry communications advisor Mathias Rongved told local newspaper Verdens Gang (VG) on Thursday that the government expects all Norwegian companies to act responsibly and build their activities on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. 

The Norwegian government’s ownership in Telenor is managed by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries. 

State secretary of the ministry Halvard Ingebrigtsen told VG that the Norwegian state has clear expectations for the company to act responsibly and respect human rights abroad. 

“The board and management of Telenor are responsible for the operation of the company and for the operational assessments. This also applies to the business in Myanmar,” the secretary said.

Norwegian MPs Geir Jørgensen and Tage Pettersen submitted motions in parliament this week asking the Minister of Trade, Industry and Fisheries whether the government would use its position as the majority owner of Telenor to prevent the distribution of data which could put the lives of Myanmar people at risk following Telenor’s sale, and if they would consider putting the sale on hold.

The minister is obliged to answer the question within six working days. 

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Saturday to include Telenor’s response to the police report.

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