EXCLUSIVE: Norway’s state-owned telecom, Telenor, has come under fire from rights groups and Burmese citizens for the proposed sale of its interests in the country to Lebanese outfit M1 Group and Shwe Byain Phyu, a crony conglomerate with close links to military business. Critics of the deal say that historic user data will be passed to the junta, posing a direct threat to the safety of thousands of citizens. Recently, activists highlighted that the company had installed a “Lawful Interception Gateway” to its network, further increasing snooping fears. Executives of the telecom are reportedly being refused exit by the junta’s Department of Posts and Telecommunications.
Gry Rohde Nordhus, Head of Communications at Telenor Group, has provided this comment in response to questions posed by DVB.
“The situation in Myanmar today is extraordinary. After the military took power, the country is experiencing a conflict resembling a civil war. A key reason for selling Telenor Myanmar is that we do not want to activate intercept equipment, which all operators are required to. Activation of such equipment could contravene Norwegian and EU sanctions. We need to exit Myanmar as soon as possible to prevent us from being forced to follow orders from the military that could eventually lead to serious human rights violations. As of today, Telenor Myanmar has not activated this equipment, nor will it do so voluntarily.
No telecom company in the country, regardless of its owner, can over time maintain international standards under these circumstances, and we therefore need to leave the country as soon as possible. This is a deeply serious situation for all mobile customers in Myanmar, and the responsibility for this lies with the military authorities.
Several voices have put forward alternative paths for Telenor in Myanmar, all of which involve aspects that have even greater negative consequences than this sale. For instance, many argue that Telenor can simply delete data. The reality is that in Myanmar, traffic data is required to be stored for several years. Deleting data will be seen as sabotage, as it would violate Myanmar law. Telenor Myanmar’s data centre is in an area under martial law, where death penalty without due process is the worst consequence. Violating or not complying with local regulations enforced by the military would be seen as sabotage and is not something we would ask our employees to do.
At Telenor we value our employees and care about their safety. No employee should have to risk their life for Telenor, and we will not jeopardize the safety of our employees.
In summary, this is an incredibly demanding situation. Ever since the military took power, we have worked diligently on getting foreign employees out of the country. We have managed to get several of them out, yet there are still some who remain and are refused departure. Including a Norwegian citizen. We are in dialogue with the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding this matter
Since last summer, when we wrote down the value of Telenor Myanmar to zero, the company has generated revenues and profits. Due to the uncertain situation in Myanmar, where there is an extreme situation with a violent conflict on top of an economic crisis, funds generated in Myanmar will not be recoverable for Telenor Group. The revenue and profits of Telenor Myanmar is described in Telenor Group’s 2021 report for the fourth quarter.“