Outrage over Telenor Myanmar sale grows as more ties between military and new owner revealed

Activists say Telenor's decision to sell the business to a military-backed company "could amount to complicity in crimes against humanity."
Written by Jonathan Greig, Contributor

Activists in Myanmar have released troves of data linking the country's military dictatorship to a company that will be purchasing a majority stake in Telenor Myanmar -- a subsidiary of Norwegian telecom giant Telenor that controls the personal data of 18 million Myanmar subscribers. 

Telenor, which is owned and controlled by the Norwegian government, has faced significant backlash for weeks after it announced a decision to sell its telecom business in Myanmar to a notorious Lebanese company called M1 Group for $105 million. 

News outlets in Myanmar have reported that M1 is already telling regulators in the country that it plans to sell 80% of Telenor Myanmar to Shwe Byain Phyu, a company with deep, longstanding ties to the country's brutal military, according to local activist group Justice for Myanmar. 

Telenor has defended the sale by repeatedly saying it is selling the business to M1 and not a military-owned company.

Myanmar's military took control of the country in a violent coup that began last year, arresting the country's elected leader -- Aung San Suu Kyi -- and disbanding her government. Since February, the military has arrested and killed thousands, sparking a revolt that has now spread throughout the country. 

Activists have expressed fears that once Telenor Myanmar is fully controlled by a government-backed company, the military will not only have access to troves of past data on almost all of the country's citizens but will also be able to install surveillance tools giving them even more access to phone calls, texts, and other personal data. 

Telenor has already admitted that they initially rebuffed military efforts to install surveillance equipment on their systems, according to Myanmar Now. The company also said it has already complied with at least 200 requests from the military to hand over customer information in the last year.

Justice for Myanmar, a local group dedicated to exposing the business ties of the country's brutal military dictatorship, accused Telenor of participating in a cover-up due to their refusal to acknowledge M1's public plan to sell most of the business to Shwe Byain Phyu.

Justice For Myanmar released information showing Shwe Byain Phyu has a long history of working with the Myanmar military and its conglomerates. Shwe Byain Phyu is a group of companies founded and owned by Thein Win Zaw, his wife and two children.

The group provided concrete evidence showing Shwe Byain Phyu's ties to military-controlled companies in the petroleumtelecommunicationsmining, and forestry industries. 

"Shwe Byain Phyu is a conglomerate with deep and longstanding ties to the Myanmar military, including with the previous military junta, military conglomerates and sanctioned entities and individuals. The Norwegian government has been turning a blind eye as Telenor Group, a company they control, proceeds to transfer Telenor Myanmar to Shwe Byain Phyu, together with the historical metadata of more than 18 million people," Justice For Myanmar spokesperson Yadanar Maung said. 

"This could amount to complicity in crimes against humanity, by handing the military a potent weapon they can use to track down, arrest, torture and murder civil society activists and journalists. The grave risks that the sale of Telenor Myanmar poses to the lives of Myanmar people are glaringly clear. Telenor must stop fabricating a narrative about how their current course of action is based on human rights considerations and immediately suspend the sale."

Wai Phyo Myint, Asia Pacific policy analyst at Access Now, added that Shwe Byaing Phyu Telecom owns 49% of a Singapore-based shell company called Investcom Pte that would take over Telenor's local business in Myanmar. 

Reports have shown that Shwe Byaing Phyu Telecom may own up to 80% of the company. 

"The handing over of operations to this group, and along with it the personal information of millions of customers, will grant almost unlimited control of telecommunications to the Myanmar military -- this is incredibly dangerous, and cannot be allowed to go ahead," Phyo Myint said. 

"The Myanmar military is oppressing and silencing people in its fight for complete control over the nation's online spaces. Access Now, and hundreds of civil society organizations from Myanmar and across the globe, are calling for immediate intervention."

Telenor's response

The Norwegian government did not respond to requests for comment, but a Telenor spokesperson told ZDNet that the company is in a difficult position when it comes to Telenor Myanmar. 

Cathrine Stang Lund, director of communications for Telenor Group Asia, said the situation in Myanmar has "developed in a direction where we are currently in a conflict between local laws on the one hand and our values, international law and human rights principles on the other." 

"This makes it impossible for Telenor to remain in Myanmar. In a severe and volatile security situation, there are no simple solutions. We have to balance several difficult considerations and have come to the conclusion that a sale is the least detrimental solution for our employees, customers and the community," Lund claimed. 

"In the sales process, assessments of human rights, privacy and the safety of our employees have been key considerations."

When pressed about reports that M1 planned to sell most of its stake to a company heavily tied to the military dictatorship, head of Telenor Group Communications Gry Rohde Nordhus said the sales agreement between Telenor and M1 "does not prevent M1 from transferring a majority of the shares after the transaction is concluded."

Nordhus explained that Telenor Myanmar is required by local law to store customer data for several years and that the local business would continue to do so once it changes ownership to M1. 

"We understand that this creates reactions, but the company is obliged by law to do so. To violate or not comply with the laws that apply in Myanmar would result in completely unacceptable consequences for our employees that neither Telenor Myanmar nor we as owners are willing to live with," Nordhus said. 

"After the military take-over in February 2021, the circumstances in Myanmar has dramatically changed. The country is currently controlled by a military council, and large parts of the country is under martial law. Breaking or not complying with local laws and directives in this situation can have serious and unacceptable consequences for our employees. This is the reality our employees are facing, and these are the conditions Telenor Myanmar is operating under."

ZDNet asked Nordhus what Telenor will tell the millions of people in Myanmar affected by the company's decision to sell their data to a military accused of numerous human rights violations

Nordhus acknowledged that the people of Myanmar "are enduring an extremely difficult situation" but said the company had no choice but to simply abandon the business and the data it has spent years collecting. 

"Telenor cannot operate in a regime that entails violations of international law, human rights principles and our values," Nordhus said. 

"We have turned every stone and considered every option, and our assessment is still that a sale is the least detrimental solution for employees, customers, and the broader society."

Editorial standards