From Boycott to Bombings: PDFs launch D-Day war on Mytel

From Boycott to Bombings: PDFs launch D-Day war on Mytel

An extensive sabotage campaign targeting Mytel’s telecommunication infrastructure is expected to hit Burma’s generals—and Vietnam’s government—with costs that could run into tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. Unsurprisingly, the military is stepping up attempts to protect their investment.

Following the National Unity Government’s D-Day announcement this Tuesday, scores of Mytel transmission towers and substations have been destroyed by Burma’s enlivened resistance groups in what appears to be a targeted campaign to root out the provider.

Well-documented information provided to DVB by People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) operating within Burma suggests that, during four days of operations, well over 60 towers have been critically disabled. The majority are located in the bloody new frontline of the conflict: the Sagaing-Magway borderlands.

Telecommunication infrastructure presents an obvious target to resistance groups operating with questionable supplies of arms and ammunition, yet evidentially a firm grounding in the manufacture of IEDs. Attacks on towers also represent an easy PR win: scores of videos, filmed by PDFs whilst documenting the recent attacks, have met with an almost universally warm reception across Burmese social media.

Predictably, the purposeful targeting of Mytel is already causing tangible irritation amongst the company’s shareholders in Naypyitaw. On Friday—a day in which DVB recorded 36 cases of effective sabotage—we received a leaked internal directive in which the junta calls for the upping of security provisions for Mytel infrastructure. A visibly rattled junta chief Min Aung Hlaing was depicted on state-media furiously challenging PDFs, demanding they “fight [junta] forces, rather than cowardly attacking non-living targets”. 

Oblivious to the military’s frustrations, attacks on Mytel continued through the night and into the morning, suggesting the Tatmadaw—now fighting increasingly intensive and complex battles on almost all fronts—are struggling to protect the company’s assets; following Min Aung Hlaing’s bluster, five towers were torched in Khin U near Myitkyina, two were destroyed in Taze, and one was dramatically felled in Ye U. After daybreak on Saturday, a tower near Kyaikto, Mon State, was blown from its foundations.

In the eyes of the civilian resistance, Mytel firmly represents more than a “non-living target”. A young spokesperson for Minmu PDF—which claims to have recently sabotaged two Mytel towers in Sagaing Region—told DVB that before attacks are launched, PDF members check with local residents to verify the ownership of a tower.

“We specifically target Mytel because it is one pillar of the military. We fight to destroy each and every one of the pillars.”

Differentiating towers is harder than it sounds. Radio Free Asia has reported that, despite at least 35 of recently attacked towers being solely operated by Mytel, five were leased to the company by owners Ooredoo (Qatar) and Telenor, a Norwegian telecommunication company recently controversially purchased by Lebanon’s M1 Group.

Burma’s other major telecom providers have yet to comment on the attacks, which may soon pose a risk to broader cellular provision within the country: one tower can in theory carry the networks of a multitude of service providers across several villages. For many, this is something of a moot point: the military have, since February, sporadically cut services other than Mytel whilst desperately attempting to force Burma’s citizens into a relationship with their provider.

A Mytel generator after an IED attack in Meiktila

Furthermore, it is understood that the Tatmadaw has established its own private Mytel networks with secure infrastructure embedded within military bases and monasteries, systems that utilise vast fibre-optic networks under the control of the Directorate of Signals. Clearly, the existence of such a system downplays the importance of the attacks for military communications per se.

Minmu PDF’s spokesperson agrees that their operations do perhaps pose more immediate risks to the communities that the groups are tasked with protecting:

“We expect that the military may attack villages in revenge for the bombing of towers. We have reports of an increased army presence, with plainclothes officers patrolling our towns.”

This certainly supports facts on the ground. The Tatmadaw is famed for it retributory attacks on villages for harboring people it considers hostile to the regime. Recent massacres and arbitrary killings by the military in Sagaing have made it Burma’s bloodiest region over the past three months, according to statistics released by the NUG.

So where is the gain for Burma’s PDFs? The most obvious answer is, as the guerrilla fighters well know, an attack on Mytel is a direct attack on the Bank of Min Aung Hlaing.

Research by DVB suggests that each Mytel tower has a value of between US$200,000 and US$300,000: a significant burden to bear for Mytel, who now face the dilemma of establishing security measures to protect somewhere in the region of 4,488 transmission towers and 14,129 base transceiver stations (according to figures published by Burma’s Ministry of Transport and Communication in May 2020).

“Our attacks interrupt connectivity for Mytel users, and that is one of our objectives, to damage the service and cut the military’s revenue streams.”

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Mytel’s infrastructure was developed following the launch of a joint-venture between the Tatmadaw and Viettel Global Investment JSC., an investment subsidiary of Viettel Global, Vietnam’s state-owned telecom.

According to financials leaked from the group in 2020, Viettel’s committed investment in the venture is US$859.95 million, representing a 49 percent equity stake: an ownership structure which suggests that 49 percent of all of Mytel’s towers are under the ownership of the Vietnamese state. The Vietnamese government’s venture company has yet to make a public statement on the attacks, despite the clear and present threat to the country’s already sizeable investment; any move on the behalf of Viettel would undoubtedly risk drawing Vietnam into debates on the wider political dynamics of the attacks, something Hanoi will look to defer, perhaps indefinitely. 

Activist group Justice for Myanmar (JFM) claim that pre-coup Mytel revenues reached approximately US$700 million per annum; a significant and highly visible source of off-budget income for Burma’s generals who own a 28 percent share of Mytel through Star High Co. Ltd., a venture owned and established by the Myanmar Economic Corporation, a Tatmadaw conglomerate sanctioned by the USA, UK, and EU (and not, as far as can be established, by Min Aung Hlaing’s son, Aung Pyae Sone, as one popular myth has it; although, one other argument oft given by PDFs for the bombings—that Mytel losses will be covered by Aung Pyae Sone’s insurance firm, Aung Myint Mo Min—is more feasible). 

The junta guarantees its majority share by retaining 23 percent of Mytel’s equity in Myanmar National Telecom Holdings, an opaque special project vehicle which, according to JFM, “appears to reward loyal cronies and children of top military generals”.

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The Mytel attacks force the generals to make a choice: protect personal assets by sending jaded troops to dangerous new fronts in the Bamar heartlands, or allow one of the jewels in MEC’s crown to be torn apart by increasingly emboldened guerrilla forces. Of course, the resistance groups are very well aware of the strategic value of their mission. One PDF member from Shwebo told DVB:

“We only target Mytel, because they use stolen wealth to murder the Burmese people. Also, by causing distractions to the security forces we weaken their ability to kill our partners in the revolution. They are too weak to protect their towers—we will attack them where they are soft.”

A Mytel tower collapses in Ye U, Shwebo, after being bombed by a PDF.

Supporting the claims of the PDF member, Justice for Myanmar last year published an extensive report into the operations of Mytel off the back of a data breach by its Vietnamese partner. One of the reports many crucial findings was that Mytel’s strengthening links with Viettel allowed the Tatmadaw to “expand… its financial infrastructure”, helping “facilitate the military’s criminal conduct and the offshoring of the country’s wealth” by the military and its cronies. 

This came in addition to well-founded accusations that the group is involved in spying on users and data-mining their information. Representing a serious conflict of interest, tenders for the erection of towers were famously given to a company owned by Min Aung Hlaing’s daughter and National Tower Development, another Singapore venture with links—through director Patrick Aung—to Burmese arms seller Aero Sofi. Mytel has also been accused of land rights abuses, including illegally developing infrastructure through ethnic Kayin land. It is clear: Mytel is nothing but the Tatmadaw in commercial form.

The Minmu PDF spokesperson confirmed to DVB that as far as their group is concerned, telecom towers are just the start:

“We don’t see operations against towers as a soft option. We are building up: soon, you will see our group target other infrastructure that supports military operations… like bridges… The vengeance we get from the destruction [of Mytel infrastructure] in no way yet satisfies the public after what the military have done to us.”

The PDFs’ nose-thumbing appears to be paying off, with the attacks on Mytel immediately rousing the attention of the Tatmadaw. Today, the junta’s Information Minister, Zaw Min Tun, likened PDF saboteurs to the Taliban, openly announcing that those involved would receive a “death sentence”.

Captain Lin Htet Aung, a high-ranking defector now aiding revolutionary forces, understands the junta’s fear. The soldier told DVB that the attacks represent a sensible strategic move for the PDFs: 

“The army does not have enough security personnel to protect all of their towers. If they were to secure all of them, they would lose the ability to deploy to frontlines and other current areas of conflict”.

The coming weeks will show where the generals’ priorities lie.

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Shortly before this new wave of attacks, Mytel had relaunched its business page on Facebook, suggesting the PDFs bombings have begun during an upsurge in the company’s confidence.

Mytel had waited for seven months to reactive their account, in light of the fierce boycott of military-owned companies that followed February’s coup. The move has reignited a popular campaign amongst Burma’s netizens to ban the company from social media. 

In February 2020, Facebook removed 13 accounts and ten pages operated by Mytel for “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”. A trail linking pages to Mytel, Viettel, and Vietnamese PR firm Gapit Communications showed how the group had used fake accounts to discredit competing telecom companies and proliferate nationalist messaging. The company had spent over US$1,115,000 on promoting these accounts before they were removed.

Through a strategy premised in dirty tricks, market manipulation, and human rights abuses, Mytel had gained ten million users to its network before February’s coup. The only feasible way for the company to retain this market share will be by resorting to force.

But, as usual, its genocidal directors are ready for a fight.