Telenor Myanmar operations handed over to new owner Investcom

Telenor Myanmar’s operations were handed over on Friday to new owner Investcom, a partnership between Lebanon’s M1 Group and local conglomerate Shwe Byain Phyu, sources who are familiar with the matter told Myanmar Now.

The junta’s investment commission gave final regulatory approval to the sale of Norwegian telecommunication giant Telenor Group’s Myanmar operations last week, concluding the operator’s months-long and controversial exit from the country. Shwe Byain Phyu, a local firm with strong ties to the military, will own 80 percent of Investcom’s shares.

Members of Investcom’s leadership informed the staff of Telenor Myanmar on Friday about the new owner’s management team, in which M1 Group’s Muhammad Ziaullah Siddiqui is CEO and 25-year-old Win Paing Kyaw, the son of Shwe Byain Phyu chair Thein Win Zaw, is his deputy. 

M1 has a controversial history of conducting business with authoritarian regimes worldwide and is an investor in Irrawaddy Green Towers, a company that leases phone towers to Mytel, which is part-owned by the military. Myanmar Now previously reported on Shwe Byain Phyu’s own lucrative business ties to the Myanmar military and its generals.

M1 set up Investcom Pte in Singapore last July for the purchase of Telenor Myanmar, with Shwe Byain Phyu holding 49 percent shares of the company prior to the sale, in addition to another 31 percent delegated from M1 post-sale. 

Investcom’s directors include M1 Group CEO Azmi Mikati—who is the nephew of the current Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati—as well as Rana Shatila, Benjamin Szeto Yu Hwei, and Jamal Ramadan, the CEO of M1 Enterprises. 

On March 22, Shwe Byain Phyu chair Thein Win Zaw and his son Win Paing Kyaw were added to the list of Investcom Pte’s representatives, according to ACRA, Singapore’s Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority.

Investcom had registered its Myanmar branch on March 3, according to data from Myanmar’s Directorate of Investment and Company Registration. The directors include Lebanese nationals Hicham Ramadan and Rana Shatila as well as Win Paing Kyaw and Soe Thiha, a name that often appears in the corporate data of Shwe Byain Phyu’s subsidiaries. 

Telenor Myanmar’s staff were also informed on Friday that the telecoms provider’s brand name will remain the same for at least another four months.

Three former employees of MPT and Ooredoo, local competitors of Telenor Myanmar, are also among the new leadership team, according to a source who was part of the briefing on the new organisation structure. 

MPT is a state-owned joint venture with Japan’s KDDI & Sumitomo, and Ooredoo is a subsidiary of the Qatari telecoms company Ooredoo Group.

The source added that the new management members will visit Telenor Myanmar’s office in Yangon next week. 

In early February, 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” concerning its exit.

Telenor’s executive vice president and head of its Asia operations Jørgen C. Arentz Rostrup said last month that there were “no good alternatives” to the sale of its Myanmar operations amid mounting security issues faced by the company following the coup.

Following the deteriorating situation in the country in the wake of last year’s coup, Telenor announced in early July that it was selling its Myanmar unit to M1 Group for US$105m. The sale included metadata of the operator’s more than 18 million subscribers. 

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.

The Myanmar junta stalled for months to approve the sale when M1 was the sole buyer. M1 later agreed to transfer controlling stake to Shwe Byain Phyu after the sale transaction was completed with Telenor Group.

Citing leaked documents, Myanmar Now reported in early February on the partnership between M1 and Shwe Byain Phyu, outlining the deal that would allow the latter to own a majority stake in the venture that will be acquiring Telenor Myanmar. 

Telenor, which is majority-owned by the Norwegian government, has come under fire from international rights groups that said it did not do enough to protect the personal data of its Myanmar customers—information that has ultimately been exposed to the junta through the sale of its in-country unit to military-linked entities.

Myanmar Now also reported that the sale would include a so-called Lawful Interception (LI) surveillance system made by the German firm Utimaco, according to leaked documents and current and former Telenor staff. 

The spyware system can monitor phone calls, SMS messages and internet use in real time. However, Telenor Group CEO Sigve Brekke denied the allegations and said the LI had not been activated, according to his interviews with media following the final approval of the sale. 

Rights group Justice For Myanmar 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 on Friday.

She said that Telenor Group management and Norway’s Minister of Trade, Jan Christian Vestre, should be held accountable for sanctions violations regarding the interception technology and any crimes that result from the “reckless deal.”

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