Telecoms tower sites mined by Myanmar military

Since September, the Myanmar military has laid landmines at telecommunications towers owned by or leased to mobile operators including Telenor, Myanmar Now has learned.

Several striking engineers from Mytel—a telecoms provider jointly owned by the Myanmar military—told Myanmar Now that the junta has been planting “security landmines” at many of the company’s tower sites in recent months. 

The engineers, who left their posts after the February 1 coup, said that the move follows attacks by the anti-junta People’s Defence Forces (PDFs), who used bombs and makeshift explosive devices to target Mytel towers due to the company’s military links.

Myanmar Now contacted multiple telecoms providers—MPT, Ooredoo and Telenor—with requests for comment on the allegations that the Myanmar military had laid landmines around their towers as well, or towers owned by third-party companies and leased to them. Only Telenor confirmed the presence of mines.

A Telenor spokesperson said the practice appeared to happen “indiscriminately across mobile and tower operators.”

“… several sites have been fitted with anti-personnel mines,” the individual told Myanmar Now in an email.

“Telenor Myanmar is gravely concerned with these practices, as they represent a severe people safety challenge for operations and maintenance staff, and for the communities living around tower sites,” the spokesperson explained.

Telenor has put in place a tower security program, which involves sending text message notifications to Telenor subscribers who live near dangerous towers, warning them to stay away from telecoms infrastructure. The company has also stopped servicing unsafe sites.

Most of the mined sites are owned by tower companies who lease them to Telenor and other operators. In such cases, according to the Telenor spokesperson, it is the tower companies who are obliged to ensure security.

“We are in close dialogue with tower partners on monitoring and reporting suspected mined sites,” the spokesperson said.

Japanese companies KDDI and the Sumitomo Corporation, who jointly operate state-owned mobile operator MPT, both responded that they had not heard of any mines being laid at MPT towers.

“We will continue our efforts to maintain the social infrastructure giving top priority to the safety of all concerned,” Sachiko Oda of KDDI said.

However, Myanmar Now has learned that MPT and Ooredoo towers have also been mined.

Ooredoo, a Myanmar telecoms provider majority-owned by the Qatari government, was among the companies who did not respond to a request for comment. A Nokia spokesperson confirmed that the company provides radio equipment that is fitted on Ooredoo towers and referred to Ooredoo for further questions.

Tower companies Irrawaddy Green Towers, Apollo, OCK and edotco also did not respond to requests for comment on the mining of tower sites.

At the time of publication, Myanmar Now could not find any published warnings or details of mined sites on the websites of mobile operators or tower companies.

Telenor did not respond to requests to disclose the list of mined tower sites that they own or lease.

According to former UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar expert Chris Sidoti, Telenor and other telecommunications businesses need to do more.

“They should demand from the military a list of towers that have been mined and they should publish that list widely as a preventive measure. The military is the guilty party, but the businesses involved have responsibilities.”

Stein Tønnesson, a peace researcher at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo with experience of Myanmar, urged Telenor to protest.

“Telenor should also try to coordinate its protests with its two main competitors, the Myanmar Post and Telecom (MPT) and Ooredoo. The Board of Telenor, which represents its shareholders, should make sure that everything possible is done by Telenor in this case.”

Telenor Myanmar last came under criticism for tower security breaches in 2017. During the Rohingya genocide, a tower owned by Irrawaddy Green Towers and leased to Telenor in Alethankyaw village in Rakhine State’s Maungdaw Township was used as a sniper post by Myanmar soldiers in an attack against villagers.

A complaint was filed at the OECD National Contact Point in December 2019 against Telenor for human rights due diligence failings. The complaint, brought by the Committee Seeking Justice for Alethankyaw, is ongoing.

‘No justifiable use of this weapon’

In September, a Mytel technician in northern Shan State suffered serious leg injuries after stepping on a landmine while undertaking tower repairs, RFA reported. No casualties have been reported at Telenor towers but the risk remains.

A spokesperson for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines condemned Myanmar’s ongoing use of landmines.

“Our view is that there is no justifiable use of this weapon that indiscriminately kills civilians, by any actor, anywhere, anytime. We will continue to call on Myanmar to end all mine use immediately, and to take all efforts to clear contaminated lands, and provide widespread risk education services to protect civilian lives.”

According to Stein Tønnesson, the junta’s use of landmines violates international law, breaching the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty which applies to Myanmar even though it is not a signatory.

“The Norwegian government should loudly and clearly protest against this violation of the Mine Ban Treaty,” he said.

The Norwegian government owns 53.97 percent of Telenor’s shares.

Our view is that there is no justifiable use of this weapon that indiscriminately kills civilians, by any actor, anywhere, anytime – a spokesperson for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines

Chris Sidoti said that Norway has a particular responsibility as owner of Telenor to pressure the Myanmar military to stop using landmines.

Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.

Telenor is in the process of selling their Myanmar business to the Lebanon-based M1 Group, owned by the Mikati family, in a deal that has been criticised by activists over human rights and privacy concerns and is now the subject of an OECD National Contact Point complaint.

M1 Group is a shareholder in the tower company Irrawaddy Green Towers.

Correction: An earlier version quoted a Telenor spokesperson stating that the company had placed physical warning signs on mined sites. Telenor has since informed Myanmar Now that they had made that claim in error and they are unable to place physical signs on mined sites. 

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