By Saiwan Bum
Justice For Myanmar published a press release in June 2022, describing Mytel as “a key pillar in the military’s business network providing revenue, technology and surveillance capabilities.” It urged “international governments to hear the voices of Myanmar and designate [Mytel] for sanctions.”
Four days earlier, Nguyen Tien Dung gave his first interview since he took the position of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) at MyTel. The headline reads: “Viettel invests into Mytel completely for the benefits of Myanmar people and nation.”
Nguyen Tien Dung failed to mention the coup or the violence against the people in Burma since February 2021. Nevertheless, the timing of the interview and the defensive tones of the title suggested that Dung and Viettel were aware of the mounting criticism and evidence against them in supporting the military.
Dung boasted about Mytel’s role in facilitating Burma’s digital transformation, including its assistance to the “Myanmar government” to conduct major projects such as “digital offices,” “A.I. camera,” and “smart cities.” Most recently, he claimed in May 2022, Mytel won the bid to launch a “national digital lottery program.”
At the end of the interview, Dung expresses Mytel’s wish to “become a pioneer company that serves the society,” and that he “hopes Myanmar nationals are better aware that [Viettel] is an international company, which invests in Myanmar completely for the benefits of the people and the country.”
In June 2022, at an annual general meeting Viettel Global’s CEO Nguyen Dat praised the development of Mytel in Burma, particularly the promising future of the mobile app MyID. Dat stated his ambition to turn MyID into a “Super App,” an all-in-one entertainment, communication, and digital wallet that will have additional features such as “credit rating based on consumers’ data.” This is a serious red flag on Mytel’s capacity to obtain and manage user data.
Mytel and its holding company, Viettel, put much effort in concealing the roles that the telecom enterprises continue to play in supporting the murderous military council of Min Aung Hlaing. This stance fuels the war against Burma’s diverse peoples.
Until now, Viettel has stayed completely silent and has not provided any comments on how it and Mytel reacted to the military coup and the following violent conflicts. It is clear that this is a deliberate strategic decision from the management level and strictly enforced to lower ranking staff.
Viettel refused to release any statement regarding its ongoing business in Myanmar, even when Mytel was repeatedly targeted by anti-coup forces. In November 2021, it was reported that out of 409 telecom towers that were destroyed since the coup, 360 towers belonged to Mytel. On 4 November 2021, Mytel’s CFO, Thein Aung, was shot dead near his home.
Remaining silent to direct all attention and criticism toward Mytel’s business rivals proves to be a highly effective strategy, and Viettel well understood it. The interview article with the Mytel CEO reports that in 2020-21, “impacts from the global pandemic and political turmoil. . . forced 2 out of 4 telecom companies to divest or sell themselves. . . only Mytel was sustainable and continues to grow [sic].”
In a disturbing way, this statement is accurate. Although Viettel reported a loss in 2021 due to the devaluation of its investment share in Mytel, it emerged as the clear winner in the post-coup telecom market. Mytel’s continued collaboration with the military council will likely guarantee security for its infrastructure, policy making, and assistance to wipe out its competitors.
Earlier this year, Norwegian telecom company Telenor was forced to sell its Myanmar operations to Shwe Byain Phyu, whose chairperson has had a long history of business ties with the military. He was an investor in Mytel. Last month, Qatari Ooredoo Group sold its Myanmar operations to a Singapore-based company with ownership link to another military crony.
As Mytel continues to operate under insignificant scrutiny and accountability, the telecom market in Burma is well on its way to devolve into its pre-2014 monopoly state under Myanma Posts and Telecommunications (MPT). Under such condition, either a de facto military-owned firm absolutely monopolizes the market, or a pseudo market will emerge, in which the military council controls nationwide telecommunications via several companies owned by its network of cronies.
The big question is: Why has Mytel and Viettel successfully stayed silent for so long?
Until recently, Mytel and Viettel had rarely, if ever, been seriously challenged to respond to the hard questions with regards to its continued open collaboration with the military. Telenor, one of Mytel’s biggest rivals, was under mounting pressure from human rights groups, institutional investors, the Norwegian government, and the European Union to clarify its business conducts in Myanmar and ensure the telecom company does not provide funds or handover its user data to the military.
Viettel, owned by Vietnam’s Ministry of Defence, has never had to face any questions on its ethical standards for its business operations in Burma, as Vietnam is a one party state.
The Vietnamese government’s emphasis on a “gradual approach without haste” to resolve the political turmoil in Burma continues to buy more time for firms like Viettel to continue its business-as-usual tactics. By resorting to diplomatic phrases such as “[calling on] all stakeholders in Myanmar to immediately stop conflicts and other violent activities,” Hanoi refuses to publicly acknowledge the crimes of Burma’s military, and thus implicitly gives Viettel a green light to continue its business. Viettel’s ongoing role to fund and enable the military to monitor citizens is highly inconsistent with Hanoi’s official line of “constructive dialogue, cooperation and trust building measures.”
At the same time, Viettel’s continued business interest in building stronger ties with Min Aung Hlaing’s military council drags Vietnam into the diplomatic quagmire, in which Hanoi finds it increasingly difficult to take a stronger stance opposing the atrocities committed by the military. As a consequence, Viettel’s presence in Burma has further shone a spotlight on ASEAN, the regional bloc accused of being unable to seek a viable diplomatic solution to the humanitarian crisis.
Almost two years have passed since the 2021 coup, and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the military has been well-documented. The Mytel CEO has since admitted that the company was boosting ties with the military council. The capacity of MyTel’s surveillance technology and Viettel’s intention to continue to cooperate with these war criminals should be a very clear alarm for those who care about Burma, its people, and the future of the country.
Elected members of the National Assembly of Vietnam, and ASEAN, and the UN, and human rights groups should insist Viettel and the government of Vietnam explain how they plan to stop assisting the military and pull its support from a brutal dictator bent on destroying the telecoms sector and the entire economy of the developing nation.