Rights Groups 'Dismayed' as Norwegian Telecom Giant Sells Myanmar Stake to Junta-Linked Company

As many as 47 global and Myanmar-based human rights organisations have written to Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, King Harald V and Telenor board chair Gun Waersted.

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New Delhi: Expressing “surprise” and “dismay” at the recent decision of the Norway-based mobile telephony giant Telenor to sell its stake in Myanmar to the M1 Group – seen close to the military junta – as many as 47 global and Myanmar-based human rights organisations have written to Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, King Harald V and the company’s board chair Gun Waersted to intervene and reconsider the decision in order to “institute human rights safeguards.”

The Lebanon-based M1 Group, co-founded by former Lebanese prime minister and currently prime minister designate Najib Mikati, is a major shareholder in the Irrawaddy Green Towers, which works for the MyTel, partially owned by the military, and also operates at least 4,000 telecom connectivity towers across Myanmar. The M1 Group had featured in the 2019 ‘Dirty List’ of the Burma Campaign UK. The ‘Dirty List’ of the international campaigner for democracy in Myanmar names global companies that do business with the military in Myanmar or are “involved in projects where there are human rights violations or environmental destruction”.

On July 8, Telenor, the Norwegian state-controlled giant, had announced that it is ejecting the Myanmar market and selling off its operations there to the M1Group.

In the letter, the rights bodies including PEN America, ALTSEAN-Burma, Free Expression Myanmar, Global Witness, Justice for Myanmar, South Asia Freedom of Expression Network, Olaf Palme International Centre among others, had written to Waersted stating, “We recognise that since the coup, Telenor, like other companies, has come under extreme pressure from the military to take further steps which undermine its responsibility to respect human rights. We realise that you face many challenges, not least protecting the rights of your employees and customers, in addition to commercial and operational challenges. However, we note that many of these challenges are not unique to Myanmar, and that Telenor continues to operate in other challenging markets, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh.”

The letter to her said, “We were, therefore, surprised and dismayed to learn that Telenor has taken a rapid decision to leave Myanmar, and to sell to the M1 Group. We note that Telenor has done this without seeking the views of the civil society stakeholders with whom it previously significantly engaged on responsible business, including some of our undersigned organisations. Furthermore, we see no evidence that Telenor has undertaken the ‘credible assessment of potential adverse human rights impacts of disengagement’ from Myanmar, required under the UNGPs.  This appears to be a hurried ‘disposal’ rather than a responsible exit.”

The rights outfits further said, “We see no evidence that M1 Group intends to respect human rights.” They also pointed out that M1 Group’s association with the Junta through its investment in Irrawaddy Green Towers was identified in the August 2019 report of the UN’s independent fact-finding mission.

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“This (the report) analysed the Myanmar military’s economic interests which are alleged to have enabled the most serious international crimes, including genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. These allegations are currently before the world’s highest courts – the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. IGT is included in the 2019 report by virtue of its willingness to have a commercial relationship with MyTel, the operator which is part-owned by the military’s Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC). MEC has, since the coup, been widely sanctioned.”

While the letter to the Norwegian prime minister urged her to use her “influence, in particular in the light of the Norwegian government’s majority shareholding” to ensure that Telenor reconsiders its decision, the letter addressed to King Herald V said, “We are also certain that given the lack of proper due diligence, Telenor will be partially responsible for whatever future decisions M1 Group may make, tarnishing not only its corporate image, but also crucially Norway’s reputation.”