Norwegian telecom firm Telenor has landed itself in hot water for selling its Myanmar business to Lebanese investment firm M1 Group, with nearly 500 local civil groups accusing the firm of failing to “prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts” arising from the sale.
The 474 Myanmar-based rights groups said on Tuesday that they have filed a complaint to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development over Telenor’s failure to abide by OECD guidelines and the United Nations’ guiding principles on business and human rights. The complaint alleged that Telenor had failed to conduct appropriate risk-based due diligence and engage with the relevant stakeholders. “Telenor has not been transparent in relation to its decision to disengage from its Myanmar operations,” the groups said in their complaint.
Telenor entered into an agreement to sell its telecom business in Myanmar to M1 Group for USD 105 million on July 8. “Further deterioration of the situation and recent developments in Myanmar form the basis for the decision to divest the company,” the telecom giant indicated in a statement. The firm said in May that it had booked a loss of USD 783 million in the first quarter as a result of the write-off, per a Reuters report.
M1 Group was founded by former Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and his brother Taha Mikati in 2007. It was a major investor in Myanmar’s largest telecom tower firm, Irrawaddy Green Towers, which signed a master lease agreement with the military-controlled mobile operator Mytel in 2017. The group has a history of conducting business in Syria, Sudan, and Yemen. It is also the subject of unresolved allegations of corruption and terrorist financing, the Myanmar-based rights groups said in their complaint.
With 18.2 million subscribers, or 33% of Myanmar’s population, Telenor’s sale has left its previous customers worried that their user data may be transferred to the military-linked firm and that the junta may use their data to make arrests, per a report by local media outlet Myanmar Now.
“We need responsible telecommunications businesses that can push back rather than willingly collude with the junta criminals. We have no trust that M1 Group will uphold their human rights responsibilities or do business with integrity,” said Ko Ye, a Myanmar activist who is part of the complaint. “We are shocked that Telenor is rushing to sell their Myanmar business to such unscrupulous buyers without human rights due diligence, transparency, or stakeholder engagement.”
Nearly six months after the coup took place on February 1, Myanmar’s military regime has sought to tighten its grip on cyberspace with intensifying phone and internet surveillance. A new cybersecurity team, formed in March, has been working with state- and military-owned telecom firms MPT and Mytel to track specific people’s phone conversations, texts, and geolocation data in real-time, all to track down opponents of the regime, according to a Frontier Myanmar report in early July.