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ByChad J. Johnson

Feb 18, 2022

Norwegian telecoms giant Telenor Group said on Friday there was “no good alternative” to selling its Myanmar subsidiary amid growing security concerns the company is facing following the coup. of military state last year.

The Telenor Group, majority-owned by the Norwegian government, has come under fire from international rights groups for protecting the personal data of its more than 18 million Burmese customers – data that risks being exposed to the junta through the controversial sale of Telenor’s Myanmar unit to military-linked entities.

Sensitive subscriber data includes times, dates and locations of calls and text messages, information that could potentially be used by the military to target political opponents.

Legal experts and human rights activists have therefore urged Telenor to protect its customers’ metadata by either suspending the sale or deleting the data before the sale.

In response to these calls, Jørgen C. Arentz Rostrup, Telenor’s executive vice president and head of its Asia operations, repeated the company’s previous statements to the media that the closure of the Myanmar unit and the removal customer data would put company employees at risk.

“Data must be stored in accordance with local law and licensing terms, both in the event of sale and license surrender. This means there are no good alternatives to a sale,” Rostrup said in the statement, referring to Myanmar laws that require local telecom operators to store user data for a period of five years. .

Last year, Burma’s junta banned Telenor executives from leaving the country while the regulatory process with military authorities is underway, Rostrup said.

Telenor Myanmar is to be sold to the Lebanese group M1, which has been criticized for collaborating with despotic regimes around the world. The Burmese military initially blocked the sale when M1 was the sole buyer, but the Lebanese company agreed to transfer a majority stake in the business to a Burmese company named Shwe Byain Phyu, which has close ties to the military. .

Leaked documents show that the final owner of Telenor Myanmar will be Investcom Myanmar, a joint venture between M1 and Shwe Byain Phyu.

Rostrup insisted that after reviewing potential alternatives to the sale, including actions recommended by industry players and activists, Telenor had decided that selling the business would be the “least detrimental” to its customers, employees and Burmese society.

“Several voices have advanced alternative paths for Telenor in Myanmar, all of which involve aspects that have even greater negative consequences than this sale. These are not the best solutions when considering all aspects of these alternatives,” its statement said.

Rostrup added that the military takeover in February last year left Telenor no choice but to leave Myanmar and sell its operations after the junta demanded that all telecommunications companies in the country to install interception equipment following the coup, which Telenor claims to have breached.

He insisted that no telecom company can maintain international standards under military rule in Myanmar.

“This is an extremely serious situation for all mobile customers in Myanmar, and the responsibility lies with the authorities.”

Telenor’s plan to sell its Myanmar operation sparked debate in Norway’s parliament last week. Two Norwegian lawmakers asked the country’s industry minister if the government would use its position as majority owner of Telenor to prevent the release of data and if they had considered suspending the sale. The Norwegian state’s participation in the company is managed by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries.

Minister Jan Christian Vestre told parliament on Wednesday that the Norwegian government would not be able to prevent the transfer of user data from Telenor’s Myanmar subsidiary to the country’s military junta after the unit was sold.

“It is not the government as the owner, but the board and management of the company that should make these decisions,” Vestre said in a Reuters report. “With this in mind, we have not asked Telenor to postpone the sale,” he added.

As Norwegian government leaves decision-making to Telenor management, rights groups raise questions about whether sale violates Norwegian law, requiring state intervention

Free Expression Myanmar (FEM) suggested in a statement on Wednesday that the sale of Telenor Myanmar may in fact be illegal under Norwegian law, requiring the government to cancel or suspend the process to allow for human rights due diligence. .

The legal reform group explained that Norway’s Sanctions Act – and the EU Council regulations implemented under it – prohibit the sale of “dual-use technology”, or technology for use both civilian and military, in Myanmar if there is a risk that it might fall into military hands.

“Telenor’s operations in Myanmar are ‘dual-use technology’ under EU Council regulations, as the infrastructure could be used for military purposes to intercept communications,” the FEM statement said, pointing out that the military links reported by Shwe Byain Phyu suggest that the unit may be intended for use by the Myanmar military.

“Telenor’s stance to protect its corporate values ​​and avoid contravening EU and Norwegian sanctions is commendable. However, there is now a serious risk that Telenor will breach these same sanctions by selling,” FEM said.

Amid calls to halt the sale, a Norwegian civil society network also filed a complaint against Telenor Group management with the police on February 11, urging them to investigate whether the sale plan of its subsidiary in Myanmar is in violation of Norwegian “crimes” laws. against humanity. »

In an interview with Myanmar Now on the same day, Norwegian judge Hanne Sophie Greve warned that in the worst-case scenario, Telenor and Norwegian authorities could be held liable for complicity in crimes against humanity if the personal data of millions of ‘Myanmar users were disclosed to the military junta.

She recommended that Telenor either sell to a responsible buyer unrelated to the Myanmar military or, if a responsible buyer cannot be found, shut down its network.

Despite the controversies surrounding the sale, Telenor has also come under intense scrutiny from international rights groups and activists for its previous compliance with military authorities.

Myanmar Now previously reported that the junta-controlled Ministry of Transport and Communications made hundreds of requests for information from Telenor over the past 12 months, including call records, call locations and the last known location of a number.

According to a source with inside knowledge of the situation, Telenor granted all the ministry’s requests despite fears that they were based on information obtained by the junta under torture. The source feared that the mobile phone numbers mentioned in the ministry’s requests were extracted during the interrogation of the political detainees.

Since seizing power in February last year, Myanmar’s military junta has killed more than 1,500 people and detained some 12,000 others in an effort to suppress resistance to the military regime, according to data compiled by the Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners.

A Telenor showroom in Mandalay in September 2015 (Telenor Group)

Network calls for investigation into whether Telenor management’s actions surrounding the sale violate Norway’s Crimes Against Humanity Act

Tin Htet Paing is deputy editor of Myanmar Now