More drama for Telenor in Myanmar

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UPDATED: Norwegian telecoms firm Telenor is caught squarely in the middle of this week’s military coup in Myanmar, where it’s one of the the country’s largest mobile phone operators. On Saturday it was once again ordered to shut down its communications network, in what Telenor CEO Sigve Brekke has called a “step backward” in the history of the troubled country.

Oslo-based Telenor has long been active in Myanmar and is now caught in its latest military coup. Here’s Telenor CEO Sigve Brekke (in black shirt) during a visit to the company’s then-new operations in 2015 with Norway’s trade minister at the time, Monica Mæland (left). She’s now Norway’s justice minister. The Norwegian government has condemned the military coup, urging Myanmar’s military to follow democratic rules, respect the results of last fall’s election and release Aung San Suu Kyi. PHOTO: Nærings- og fiskeridepartementet/Trond Viken

“We got a warning before the (first) order came,” Brekke had earlier told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) when recounting events in which the military arrested Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San SuuKyi in a power grab, and rejected her victory in last fall’s democratic election. Her party won by a huge margin and Myanmar’s military, which has continued to assert power all along, suffered a major defeat.

On Saturday, almost a week after the coup, Telenor and all other mobile operators in the country were ordered to cut off Internet service for the second time since the coup. Text messaging and voice services remained available.

Telenor has objected. The company expressed “deep concern” over the shutdown in a press release Saturday and stated that access to mobile services should always be upheld, “especially during times of conflict.” That’s important, Telenor maintains, “to ensure people’s basic right to freedom of expression and access to information.” Telenor concluded by stating that it “deeply regrets” the impact that the shutdown has on the people of Myanmar.

‘Really sad’
Telenor nonetheless had to concede that its local unit in Myanmar is “bound by local law” and “needs to handle this irregular and difficult situation.” Telenor also noted that “we have employees on the ground (in Myanmar) and our first priority is to ensure their safety.”  Military authorities have defended their crackdown on Internet communication, citing an alleged threat of fake news, national stability and the public interest.

Brekke earlier told DN that he and Telenor colleagues had set up a crisis team in Myanmar in late January, only to wake up Monday (February 1) to the coup. “We shut down part of the (mobile) network under orders from the authorities,” Brekke said. He claimed that Telenor, however, made its own concerns and policies clear regarding freedom of expression and human rights.

Brekke was head of Asian operations for Telenor when it won the license in 2013 to build out Myanmar’s mobile phone system. “Myanmar has always been close to my heart,” he said. “Being part of the opening in a country that had been closed for 50 years made a big impression on all of us. This is a step backward. It’s really sad to see.”

Operations worth billions
Hanne Knudsen, communications director for Telenor in Oslo, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Saturday that Telenor still believes its presence in Myanmar can contribute to raising standards for openness. She stated that the company was “working constantly to secure a stable network for our customers in Myanmar, and hope to be able to reopen the services again as quickly as we can.” It was unclear how long the shutdown would last, with the authorities stating it would be “temporary.”

Telenor’s revenues in Myanmar amounted to around NOK 7 billion last year. The company otherwise reported strong results for 2020 this week, with total revenues up 8 percent and pre-tax profits up 22.3 percent, resulting in a dividend pot valued at NOK 12 billion.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund