The military junta that overthrew Myanmar’s democratically elected government a year ago hasn’t allowed several leaders of Norwegian telecoms firm Telenor leave the country. It’s been the latest drama for Telenor, its 730 employees and millions of customers in Myanmar, and comes amidst massive criticism of Telenor’s pending sale of its operations in the deeply troubled Southeast Asian nation.
It all started out so well, when Oslo-based Telenor won a license to develop Myanmar’s mobile phone network in 2013. The country seemed to be emerging from years of authoritarian military rule, elections were being held and Telenor was keen to contribute to the development of Myanmar’s communications system, economy and its own bottom line. By 2015, Telenor Myanmar could boast more than 10 million customers in Myanmar and was the parent company’s second-most profitable operating unit. Its customer base has nearly doubled since.
Then came the military coup in February 2021 that has hurled the country and its people back into an authoritarian state in which military leaders are enriched at the painful expense of its people. “The situation in Myanmar today is extraordinary,” Telenor stated in a recent press release. “The military has taken power and the country is experiencing a conflict resembling a civil war.”
Caught in the cross-fire is Telenor, its traffic data stored over the years, and both customers and employees who fear for their lives. “We see that the military just does things their way, without any respect for international laws and rules,” Telenor’s chief executive Sigve Brekke told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) this week.
The military takeover prompted Telenor to write off the value of its investment in Myanmar last spring. In July, Telenor reported that it was selling Myanmar operations to a Lebanese investment firm, M1 Group, at a huge loss and has been waiting for the sale to be approved by the military authorities ever since. On Friday came news that Telenor was evaluating a letter received from Myanmar authorities that marked a step towards approval of the sale. Regulatory approval of the transaction, however, was still needed.
Both employees, local activists and human rights groups fear the new owner, believed to be linked to the authorities, will turn over Telenor Myanmar’s traffic data to the military, which could jeopardize the lives of customers opposing the military leaders. Several efforts have thus been made to halt the sale, including various legal actions, appeals to the Norwegian government and a complaint filed with the Norwegian police. Newsinenglish.no has also received emails from desperate employees and activists, pleading for either Telenor to change its mind about selling or for its majority owner, the Norwegian government, to block the sale.
“We fear sensitive personal data, especially tied to human rights activists, will be shared with the junta,” Kathrine Sund-Henriksen, leader of plaintiff ForUM, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) earlier this month. ForUM functions as an umbrella organization for around 50 Norwegian foreign aid, human rights and peace organizations. It fears for Telenor’s now 18 million customers, who stand to be persecuted by the junta leaders.
Calls have also gone out for Telenor to delete the potentially incriminating data before the sale goes through, but Telenor insists it can’t do that because then its employees in Myanmar could find themselves in a dangerous situation. They’d stand to be prosecuted by military authorities for violating laws requiring the data to be stored.
‘We have no choice…’
“For Telenor, the military takeover has put us in a position where we have no choice but to leave the country,” states Jørgen Arentz Tostrup, head of Telenor Asia. “The safest way to do so is by selling the operations. Some stakeholders have said they understand … but have asked us to shut down the operation and delete data. We cannot do this without putting our employees at considerable risk.”
Meanwhile, official approval of the sale to M1 and a Myanmar firm believed tied to the juinta has still not been granted and Telenor’s executives brought in from outside Myanmar aren’t allowed to leave the country. They include a Norwegian citizen. “We have received a clear message from the authorities that leaders of the company won’t receive permission to travel abroad,” Brekke told DN. He stressed that the employees’ safety is “demanding, and we take this very seriously.”
DN reported that Myanmar’s Ministry of Investment and Foreign Economic Relations has failed to respond to requests for comment. Norway’s own Foreign Ministry has been alerted to the executives’ plight. “We are aware that a Norwegian citizen has been denied the right to leave Myanmar,” a ministry official told DN, adding that he is receiving consular assistance from Norway’s embassy in Yangon and the ministry in Oslo.
Telenor has been subjected to massive criticism over its decision to sell out and leave Myanmar, but Brekke also claims the company has no choice. The Norwegian government still owns 54 percent of the company that originally was Norway’s public communications utility, but confirmed last week that it won’t exert ownership pressure to halt the sale.
“What’s happening in Myanmar is just terrible, and worries us a lot,” Norway’s new minister in charge of business and trade, Jan Christian Vestre of the Labour Party, said in response to questions in Parliament last week about the matter. “It’s also terrible for the local population.” He noted, though, that “there unfortunately are no good solutions” for Telenor, with all alternatives involving “serious” consequences.
He said the government, as majority owner of Telenor, wouldn’t interfere in accordance with the policy that applies to state ownership: management decisions are left to hired management. The ministry has had meetings and taken contact more than 20 times since the coup last February, at which the troubles in Myanmar were discussed, but “as an owner of a telecoms firm with a subisidiary in Myanmar, we can’t prevent metadata from landing in the hands of the military junta. It’s a demanding answer to have to give, but it’s honest and clear.”
Diego Alexander Foss of ForUM was not satisfied, telling DN that it means millions of Telenor Myanmar customers still risk being “thrown under the bus.” He now wants the police and state prosecutors in Norway to determine whether the pending sale would violate crimes against humanity.