Doing business in Myanmar is difficult, but Telenor from Norway finds leaving is not much easier

After last year’s military coup in Myanmar, the local branch of the Norwegian telecommunications company Telenor LIKE

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A has faced orders to block social media, shut down mobile services nationwide and allow the junta to spy on citizens through an invasive new interception system.

In July, the company decided that mining conditions in the country had become unbearable and said it would pull out. Now it’s the learning that isn’t easy either.

The company found a buyer, but spent months waiting for approval from the junta-controlled regulator. Democracy advocates and members of Myanmar’s ousted civil administration have called on the Norwegian government, which owns a majority stake in Telenor, to stop the sale. A complaint in Norway seeks assurances that customer data will not fall into the hands of entities linked to the junta.

Many foreign companies in Myanmar face similar dilemmas regarding withdrawal. Some are under pressure to pull out from shareholders concerned about reputational risks and activists seeking to isolate or bankrupt the junta. Other companies are finding day-to-day operations unsustainable with a weak economy and heightened security risks as the conflict between the junta and anti-coup fighters escalates.

Nearly two dozen major foreign companies have decided to pull out since the coup, according to the World Bank. Western energy giants TotalEnergies SE TTE -1.26%

and herringbone Corp.

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Japanese brewer Kirin Holdings Co.

KNBWY 3.18%

, and Swiss luxury hotelier Kempinski Hotels SA are among them. Others in sectors like clothing manufacturing, less financially tied to the military, chose to stay but did extra due diligence, like keeping personnel safe.

Telenor says it has become impossible to stay. The deciding factor was the regime’s directive to activate interception equipment, the company said in September. Such spyware would allow authorities to spy on customers. Telenor said in September that it had not activated the system and would not do so voluntarily. The company declined to comment further on the matter.

The Myanmar military did not respond to a request for comment.

In July, the company announced a $105 million deal to sell its subsidiary to M1, a Lebanese company owned by the family of the country’s prime minister. The arrangement has drawn criticism from human rights advocates who say M1 has an uneven rights record. Activist group Justice for Myanmar published an investigation last year alleging that the company’s telecommunications business operated under authoritarian regimes in Syria and Sudan.

M1 did not respond to a request for comment.

“Telenor was trusted by Burmese people because they made their point of view on business and human rights.”

— Htaike Htaike Aung, Myanmar digital rights advocate

Pro-democracy activists also say they are concerned that control of the company could end up in the hands of military-linked entities, which would put up little or no resistance to regime demands for access. historical data or enable spyware. Telenor said it does not comment on speculation. His agreement does not prevent M1 from transferring the majority of shares once their transaction is completed, Telenor said.

The stakes are high for Telenor Myanmar’s 18 million customers. Of the country’s four internet service providers, two are controlled by the military, while another, Qatar-based Ooredoo, has not publicly resisted junta orders. Ooredoo did not respond to a request for comment.

“Telenor was trusted by Burmese people because they brought their perspective on business and human rights forward,” said Htaike Htaike Aung, a digital rights advocate from Myanmar.

TotalEnergies is among the foreign companies that have decided to leave Myanmar since the coup.


Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Telenor faced a new challenge last week: a complaint to Norway’s data protection authority asking it to investigate the sale and ensure it would not breach users’ privacy. It was submitted by the Oslo-based law firm Sands and supported by the Center for Research on Multinational Corporations, the Dutch non-profit organization behind a separate complaint against Telenor to the Organization of economic cooperation and development last year. That complaint alleged that the company failed to follow the group’s responsible divestment guidelines.

Telenor said in September that it was committed to compliance and was open to dialogue with the OECD and the complainant.

Last week’s complaint said data protected by EU laws, including names, addresses, identification numbers and other user information, would be transferred during the sale without consent. This could help authorities find people in hiding or lead them to relatives of suspects, the nonprofit said. Telecom companies in Myanmar are required by law to record who has which SIM cards and to store call records for five years.

Ketil Sellæg Ramberg, the lawyer who filed the complaint, said: ‘The message we are trying to get across is that if you know about this risk and you have to leave, you do so in a way that you can look at customers in the eyes. and say, ‘We didn’t hand over your data to the junta.’ »

In early 2021, the Myanmar military said it was taking control of the country for a year by detaining civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of her party. Here’s how the coup played out on the ground and what it means for the country’s democratic transition. Photo: Lynn Bo Bo/Shutterstock (Video from 02/01/21)

Telenor said European privacy laws do not apply to customer data in Myanmar, which it says is not controlled by parent company Telenor ASA. He previously said the company was required to store metadata, which includes records of which phone numbers communicated with each other, when and roughly where. The company said it does not own the content of any user communications, such as phone calls or text messages.

Industry experts say Telenor has little wiggle room. Staying in the country is not a viable option, but local laws prevent him from modifying existing data before leaving, which could affect staff. Data privacy experts say this type of data has little value in many contexts and was already within reach of authorities through other laws.

Still, they say, there is a chance it could harm anti-junta dissidents. “For telecom operators and governments, it’s in their best interest to say there’s nothing dangerous or invasive,” said Jamael Jacob, a Manila-based lawyer specializing in digital privacy. “But civil society would say they are still able to leak people’s identities and put them at risk if it gets into the hands of the wrong people.”

Myanmar since the coup

Read more articles on the situation in the country, selected by the editors.

Write to Feliz Solomon at

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