Telenor Withdrawal Will Hobble Myanmar’s Economy, Protections on Privacy: Experts

The decision by a Norwegian telecommunications firm to pull out of Myanmar following the junta’s Feb. 1 coup d’état will deal a blow to the country’s already struggling economy and grant the military significantly more control over the privacy of its citizens, according to experts.

On July 8, Norway’s Telenor Telecommunications Co. announced that it plans to sell all of its existing services in Myanmar to Lebanese firm M1 Group. Telenor chief executive Sigve Brekke said in a statement that the company decided to leave the country after nearly a decade of doing business there because of growing challenges in terms of compliance with rules and regulations.

The move comes some five months after the military overthrew Myanmar’s democratically elected government, claiming voter fraud had led to a landslide victory for NLD party in the country’s November 2020 election. The junta has yet to provide evidence of its claims and has violently suppressed nationwide demonstrations calling for a return to civilian rule, killing more than 900 people in the process.

In the months since the coup, the junta has barred senior executives of major telecoms, including Telenor, from leaving or entering the country freely without obtaining special permission. And in early July, the junta reportedly ordered the firms to track the devices of political dissidents and report on their behavior.

Following Telenor’s announcement, junta Minister of Foreign Affairs and Investment Aung Naing Oo said the company’s decision was made due to “other difficulties” such as “political pressure,” without elaborating.

“About seven percent of Telenor’s total revenue came from Myanmar—for them, Myanmar was a huge market, so they didn’t leave because they wanted to,” he said.

Aung Naing Oo insisted that Telenor’s departure would have no impact on the country.

“When they [decided to leave], someone else stepped in, so there’s no harm done to our country,” he said, adding that the military and M1 Group are now preparing for talks.

Telenor invested around U.S. $600 million to set up its operations in Myanmar in 2014 and had since gained more than 17 million subscribers—nearly one-third of the country’s population of 54 million. The company said last week that it had agreed to sell off all of its services to M1 for U.S. $105 million.

Economist Soe Tun told RFA’s Myanmar Service that Telenor’s decision to leave will damage Myanmar’s prospects for attracting foreign investors, who are already wary of entering the country because of the ongoing political turmoil, as well as other issues including lack of infrastructure and widespread corruption.

“Currently, large international companies are reluctant to invest in Myanmar and existing companies are leaving,” he said.

“As Telenor is an international company, I think its withdrawal will discourage other foreign investment. In any case, it’s going to impact [the economy], although we cannot yet say to what extent.”

Control over information

Others suggested that the departure would usher in a new era of state control over information in the country.

Following Telenor’s announcement, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, issued a statement saying that the company had been “put between a rock and a hard place” by the junta’s demands that it track people opposing its rule.

“Coupled with junta threats to Telenor executives that they could not leave the country without prior permission, it’s not at all surprising that Telenor decided to exit,” he said at the time.

“The sad part is Telenor will likely be replaced by a company that is less principled in standing up to the junta’s rights abusing demands, and the Burmese people will be worse off because of it.”

The M1 Group is owned by former Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who has been linked to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and, over the weekend, watchdog Justice For Myanmar said the company could not be trusted to uphold human rights because of its history of collaborating with former Sudanese despot Omar al-Bashir.

Burma Campaign U.K., which monitors the human rights situation in Myanmar, blacklisted the M1 Group in 2019. The M1 Group is not yet directly working with the junta but is a major shareholder in Irrawaddy Green Towers, which operates infrastructure for the military-controlled telecom company Mytel.

Aung Nay Paing, a current Telenor customer, said the M1 Group is “indirectly linked” to the military and expressed concern over the security of its customers’ personal information.

“When Telenor Myanmar changed hands, it became very difficult for us because the new owner is a group that invested in the construction of Mytel’s towers and it would favor the junta over its other customers,” he said.

“We won't be using it anymore. We are now looking for another operator and many of my friends are thinking along the same lines.”

Zaw Naing, chief executive of Mandalay Technologies, told RFA that no telecom is strong enough to stand up to the military if it decides to violate the privacy of the public.

“The main thing we should keep in mind is, regardless of whether M1 is affiliated with the military or not, there are no longer any protections for our personal freedoms since the junta took power,” he said.

“This lack of protection means that they can violate your privacy at will. For example, they can access our bank accounts at any time. They can also listen to our telephone conversations whenever they want.”

Thirteen days after the coup, military chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing suspended Articles 5, 7 and 8 of the Law on the Protection of Citizens’ Personal Freedom and Security, which regulate the interception of or interference in any communication device and allow telecoms to refuse government requests for the records of electronic communication devices.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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