Norwegian govt called on to intervene as junta stops Telenor execs from leaving Myanmar

Myanmar’s junta is refusing to allow Telenor executives to leave the country pending the finalisation of the sale of the company’s telecommunications operations, the group’s leadership said.

Critics of the sale—to a consortium controlled by the military-linked company Shwe Byain Phyu, after an initial purchase by the Lebanese M1 Group—have responded that the circumstances necessitate a diplomatic intervention by Norway, the majority owner of Telenor Group. 

In an interview with the Norwegian business newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) this week, Telenor Group CEO Sigve Brekke said, “We have received a clear message from the authorities that senior employees will not be allowed to leave.”

Brekke told DN that one of the executives was a Norwegian citizen.

In October, junta investment minister Aung Naing Oo told Reuters that there was “kind of a request not to leave the country” so the junta could physically hold discussions with Telenor’s management.

Myanmar Now has learnt that there is also at least one Indian citizen working for Telenor Myanmar who is subject to the ban.

Brekke would not comment on whether employees had tried to leave the country and been stopped.

The company has been pushing to complete the sale of its Myanmar unit; Myanmar Now confirmed that the junta’s telecoms regulator, the Posts and Telecommunications Department (PTD), gave regulatory approval for the transaction this week, a significant step toward the finalisation of the sale to the M1 Group. The sale still needs approval from the Myanmar Investment Commission, according to a Telenor Group spokesperson. 

The Norwegian citizen in question is not in military custody and it is believed that the individual’s movements within Myanmar were not restricted at the time of reporting.    

A source familiar with the executive’s situation told Myanmar Now that the individual had recently applied to the junta’s telecoms regulator for exit approval and was awaiting a decision. 

Telenor Group would not confirm or deny this, nor did they respond to questions of whether the travel restrictions on foreign executives was a factor affecting the sale plan of their Myanmar subsidiary.

The Royal Norwegian Embassy in Myanmar confirmed that “a Norwegian citizen has been denied permission to leave Myanmar” and that they were providing consular services to the individual but would not comment further or confirm whether the citizen in question was a Telenor employee. 

The Norwegian embassy did not comment on whether Norway was working with India or other allies to facilitate the safe passage of Telenor expatriate staff out of Myanmar. 

When asked if Telenor has sought assistance from Indian authorities, Telenor Group spokesperson Cathrine Stang Lund replied, “Telenor Group is in dialogue with diplomatic missions and foreign services on an ongoing basis regarding the situation in Myanmar, including on the travel ban.”

The Indian embassy in Myanmar did not respond to a request for comment.

When asked to respond to human rights concerns regarding Telenor Group’s planned transfer of personal data to the Shwe Byain Phyu-led consortium, and how the junta’s travel ban affects the sale, the Norwegian embassy replied that commercial questions need to be directed to Telenor.

“Although the Norwegian state is the majority shareholder in Telenor, Norwegian company law places the responsibility for assessments and decisions relating to the company’s investments in Myanmar with its board of directors and corporate management, and not the owners.”

Some critics have warned the Norwegian government that pushing ahead with the sale is tantamount to giving in to a “hostage” situation. 

Norwegian judge Hanne Sophie Greve said that the travel ban needed to be dealt with at a state level.

“If it is correct that a Norwegian and an Indian citizen have been taken hostage, that is a most serious issue that it is for the Norwegian government and for the Indian government to address,” she told Myanmar Now. “It is totally unacceptable for international business to be conducted in a way that you take a few hostages, and you get what you want.”

Joseph Wilde-Ramsing, a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), said the travel ban should be dealt with by the Norwegian government separately from the sale of the Telenor Myanmar unit.

“This is a diplomatic issue that needs to be handled at the highest levels of the Norwegian government and not something that Telenor should be playing with in the sale, using the lives and rights of 18 million Myanmar citizens as a bargaining chip,” he explained, referencing the number of Telenor Myanmar subscribers who stand to have their personal data compromised by the sale of the operation to a military-linked entity. 

Chris Sidoti, a member of the Special Advisory Council on Myanmar, said that the ban required a tough approach from the Norwegian government and warned Telenor against factoring it into the sale.

“International best practice when terrorists hold hostages is to not negotiate with the terrorists. We have a direct contrast in relation to Myanmar in which the US took a tough line with the military and Danny Fenster was released,” he said, referring to the American journalist imprisoned by the junta for six months.

“Australia has been sycophantic and weak and Sean Turnell is still in prison,” he added. Turnell, an Australian national and economic advisor to the ousted National League for Democracy government, was arrested following the February coup last year and remains in junta custody. 

“The only way to deal with the military is to stand up to these bully boys. If Telenor is using this as a reason to sell, it just encourages the generals to take hostages,” Sidoti told Myanmar Now.

In June 2021, junta telecom regulator PTD, issued a directive requiring that telecommunications executives apply for permission to exit Myanmar pending the activation of a lawful intercept—enabling the junta to monitor the content of subscribers’ communications—which applied to all mobile operators. A copy of the directive was seen by Myanmar Now.

Telenor Group CEO Sigve Brekke told DN that Telenor Group may have been able to avoid activation of the lawful intercept because of the ongoing sales process.

“A Norwegian company cannot activate this type of monitoring equipment in Myanmar. And we do not want to contribute to human rights violations. So far we have not done that. That is also why we must leave the country as soon as possible to prevent us from being forced to follow orders that could eventually lead to serious breaches,” Brekke said.

However, after the sale, Telenor Myanmar’s new buyers are expected to comply with the order to activate lawful intercept technology, giving the junta the ability to monitor conversations on the Telenor Myanmar network.

Critics have argued that the transfer of personal data through the sale will amount to a serious breach of human rights, and can be used by the junta to track down dissidents.

Earlier this month, a Myanmar citizen filed a complaint at the Norwegian Data Protection Authority seeking to prevent Telenor Group’s planned transfer of personal data. The complaint is pending.

For Norwegian judge Hanne Sophe Greve, the travel ban illustrates the danger of Telenor continuing with the sale and handing over the personal data of its millions of Myanmar users. 

“The alleged situation really confirms that what’s at stake is that the military junta wants the data that comes with the sale. Otherwise why would they take hostages?”

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