Even before the coup in Myanmar, the military was preparing to strengthen surveillance mechanism by pressuring telecommunication companies to enforce intercept spyware. Although it was not confirmed whether the Ministry of Transport and Communication under the National League for Democracy government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was involved to some extent in the implementation of these surveillance procedure, the budget amounted to nearly 3.4 million Euro were approved in 2019-2020 financial year for the purchase of spyware products and phone hacking technology. Since the coup, Myanmar military has been exerting control over the Internet service providers and telecommunication companies. The military’s order to intensify electronic surveillance systems lead to a recent speculation that Telenor, Norwegian multinational telecommunications would sell its business in Myanmar. Eventually, Telenor picked up a blacklisted company with bad track record for selling 100% of its share in Myanmar without giving any notice to its customers. This interview shares the voice of an activist who leads the movement for digital rights and the cancelling of Telenor’s sale to M1 group for the data security of 18 million users. The identity of the activist is kept under anonymity due to security concerns.
Interview with an activist on digital rights
Q: Local media reported that 464 civil society groups sent a letter to Mr. Sigve Brekke, CEO, Telenor Group. As one of those who signed the letter, can you explain about the situation that prompted you to take this action?
A: Civil society organisations across Myanmar are outraged at Telenor’s announcement to sell their Myanmar business to the Lebanese company M1 Group. Because this sale will embolden the military junta which has been committing atrocities and put the people’s lives at risk. Telenor rolled out its network in Myanmar in 2014 with promises of “connectivity” and “empowerment.” In the subsequent years, Telenor built up a highly profitable business. As an indicator, the company’s 2020 revenue from Myanmar was over US$800 million. On February 1, 2021, the military attempted to take power, forming a junta that is conducting a nationwide terror campaign against the Myanmar people. Since the coup, Telenor has issued statements in support of democracy but has also been forced to install interception software that allows the military to conduct surveillance on its network in an abhorrent breach of privacy. In early July, Telenor confirmed that it entered into a sale agreement with M1 Group, owned by an investment firm chaired by Lebanon’s most wealthy man and a former prime minister Najib Mikati, for $105m. What we want to ask Telenor is why it dropped users’ data in the hand of a company which has a bad reputation with corruption at a time when security concerns are at peak in our country. We demand Telenor to reconsider its choice while the users’ lives are under threat while the coup council is tracking down our phone records and digital footprints.
Q: What kind of company is M1 and why are the people worried about it?
A: It will put the data of 18 million at a greater risk. The Lebanon based holding group is known for its existing business with the military government before the coup. The Burma Campaign UK put M1 in the Dirty List because of their tower business with Mytel, in which majority of its shares is owned by the Myanmar military. This company was also listed by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (IIFFMM) established by the United Nations Human Rights Council as one of the foreign companies with contractual or commercial ties to companies run by the military which is now being accused of alleged genocide against the Muslim Rohingya minority.
M1 Group has a record of doing business with dictatorships, without regard for human rights, as documented by Justice For Myanmar. This includes business in Sudan during the Darfur genocide, in Yemen and in Syria. M1 is not a stranger in working with authoritarian governments. There are also corruption charges in Lebanon against M1 Group’s co-founder, Najib Mikati. We are worried that transferring the data of 18 million users will jeopardize privacy and safety for the communication and a lifeline for Myanmar citizens who are now facing a double crisis of Covid-19 and the dictatorship.
Q: Myanmar also has other three telecommunication companies. Aren’t they in compliance with the rules set by the military also?
A: That is why we need a company which at least tries to hold corporate social responsibility.
There are three other telecommunication firms in Myanmar, Myanmar Post and Telecommunication (MPT), Mytel, a venture between Myanmar’s army and Viettel which is owned by Vietnam’s defence ministry, and Qatar’s Ooredoo. Telenor’s main competitors have an appalling track record when it comes to human rights. Now the operations of MPT and Mytel are under fully control of the junta, according to a Reuters’ report. Ooredoo does not have much transparency as it never allowed the users know how the surveillance measures taken by the coup leaders is affecting our lives. At least, Telenor has tried to let the people know what the coup council’s directives are. Telenor had provided crucial ethical leadership in the telecommunications industry, pushing for responsible business practice, even if outcomes were less than we hoped. Since February 1, 2021 when the army seized power, Telenor was often the only source of information regarding the government’s abusive orders while other companies were not transparent. At least we, citizens, were informed by Telenor how the government was trying to control over mobile networks and internet.
Q: What will happen to the personal data of Telenor’s 18 million users? Is Telenor handing that to M1 Group, who are known as business partners with the Myanmar military?
A. We sent an appeal about our concerns to the Norwegian King and Norwegian government, which owned majority of shares in Telenor, that they should reconsider what would happen to us if the Lebanese group will give in to the orders of the coup leaders to share users’ data. Democratization in the last ten years was slow and not free from imperfections. Sometimes we even saw the drawbacks. Even before the coup, military leaders were trying to upgrade their surveillance system by acquiring technologies and intercept spyware. What we do not know is how broadly the intercept has covered the system we are using. There were also reports about the government’s budget spent for tools to trace the SIM cards and technology against firewalls which would allow them effective internet censorship. If the military gain a full control over the internet, the junta can do many things. They cut the internet in Rakhine, the Western conflict areas for more than one year while they were waging war with the Arakan Army. After the coup, they used different forms of internet cuts for more than two months to control the riots. They also banned social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram while the military backed hate groups that keep promoting ultra-nationalist sentiment. After Telenor had left Myanmar, we will have no companies that has as strong record as Telenor for human rights concerns and acting with transparency. Telenor has had a track record of engaging with civil society and independent media.
Q: What are your key points in urging the multinational company for holding accountability?
A: Telenor rolled out its network in Myanmar in 2014 with promises of “connectivity” and “empowerment.” The same year, King Harald of Norway led a royal visit to Myanmar and met with Telenor staff. Speaking at Yangon University, he said, “we see it as our responsibility to support you… as a true and honest friend.” In the subsequent years, Telenor built up a highly profitable business. The company’s 2020 revenue from Myanmar was over US$800 million and 660 million in 2019. Now we are in a situation of needing a true friend.
On February 1, 2021, the military attempted to take power, forming a junta that is conducting a nationwide terror campaign against the Myanmar people. Since the coup, Telenor has issued statements in support of democracy but has also been forced to install interception software that allows the military to conduct surveillance on its network in an abhorrent breach of privacy. In these circumstances, when the people of Myanmar are faced with the dual crises of Covid-19 and the terrorist military junta, we expected Telenor to live up to its international human rights responsibilities to the people of Myanmar, under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines on Responsible Business. According to these guidelines, you can see that multinational corporation must carry out the actions required a responsible divestment from the country. In UN Guiding Principles, it said “business enterprises should identify and assess any actual or potential adverse human rights impacts with which they may be involved either through their own activities or as a result of their business relationships”.
Q: What practical actions you would expect the company to undertake for Myanmar in this situation?
A: Telenor has not consulted with civil society over the sale. They have not consulted with customers. They have not consulted with the people risking their lives to resist the military junta, whose lives are in Telenor’s hands. We have not been presented with any human rights or corruption due diligence report regarding the disposal of their Myanmar business. Telenor did not mention anything about our personal data that we entrusted. We are 18 million users. At least the major stakeholders should be informed before they confirmed the sale. Telenor has an obligation to minimize negative human rights impacts associated with its business and provide remedy when negative impacts occur too. Proper due diligence is required to avoid negative impact from this hasty disengagement from Myanmar. They can even consider selling it to a local Myanmar company if they are selling the share with such a discounted price. Telenor and the Norwegian government can consider Myanmar as a friend as King Harald promised while he visited Yangon University.