The Norwegian mobile operator sold its network in Myanmar to a Lebanese company last week and plans to withdraw from the country. The reasons for this are manifold. Since the coup on February 1 this year, the situation in Myanmar has changed dramatically. For Telenor, however, it is not just about losing profits, it is also about the safety of its own employees on the ground and ethical principles that, in the opinion of the management, make it impossible to remain in Myanmar in view of the junta’s new demands. By Marco Wenzel.
Like many other companies, Telenor had let itself be deceived by appearances and believed that Myanmar was finally on the way to a democracy and was therefore blinded by high profit expectations in the context of the construction of the mobile network in Myanmar. The story sounded good and the whole world wanted to believe in it. The military appeared to be willing to hand over power to a civilian government and hand over power to the NLD party, founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung Suu Kyi in 1988. It was almost too good to be true, 43 years of military dictatorship seemed to be coming to an end. But if you took a closer look, you could see that the parliament in Myanmar was only a sham parliament from the beginning and that the real power in administration and economy was still in the military. Now Telenor is withdrawing from the Myanmar business at a loss.
There are currently many reasons for people who can still do this to leave Myanmar. For their withdrawal from the country, Telenor gives the following three reasons:
1. The economic situation
The Internet was first introduced in Myanmar in 2000, and there have been military efforts to block critical sites from the start. Since 2000, however, the Internet and mobile communications sector has been on the upswing. Telenor has been active in Myanmar since the beginning of 2014. A completely new network had to be built. Telenor has invested hundreds of millions of USD in it.
Telenor is one of the four major mobile operators in Myanmar, along with Ooredoo, the state-owned MPT and Mytel, a joint venture between the Vietnamese company Viettel and the military. Today, Telenor has about 18 million customers, serving a third of the country’s 54 million inhabitants. Since the military coup, the company has been in the red.
The mobile operators in Myanar were forced after the coup, to block access to platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, because these have been used to organize protests and to make news about the measures of repression, Terror and human rights violations of the Tatmadaw in all the world open to the public. In mid-March, Internet providers, including Telenor, were forced to cut off their customers ' Internet access. Internet access has not been fully restored to this day, telecommunications companies regularly receive lists from the junta of sites and phone numbers of activists to be blocked.
Having built a successful business in Myanmar, Telenor now sold its business to the Lebanese investment firm M1 Group for $ 105 million, well below the estimated value of $ 650 million, and announced its withdrawal from the country. It is speculated that M1 could resell the mobile network to a Russian or Chinese company. China and Russia have close relations with the military junta and have always refused to condemn the coup.
2. Employee Safety
The leaders of Myanmar’s major telecommunications companies have been banned by the junta from leaving the country without permission. A mid - June order from the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications states that senior executives, both foreigners and nationals of Myanmar, must obtain special permission to leave the country. The ban is intended to put pressure on telecommunications companies to set up espionage technology demanded by the junta.
To monitor mobile customers, the military needs the cooperation of network operators and their employees. The exit ban is intended to force employees to cooperate with the junta. The military also takes physical action against employees of mobile phone companies or threatens them if they refuse to carry out their orders. Some employees, it is reported, have already been arrested and interrogated.
In general, the security situation in Myanmar is becoming increasingly severe. The military has established or reactivated a new network of pro-military and nationalist groups, the Pyusawhti. These are fascist hardliners who spread terror among the population and wage a dirty war against the democratic forces that oppose the coup. The Pyusawhti can ignore the night curfew to carry out their attacks because it is a partner of the military and is supported by the USDP, the party of the military.
The network works with the junta to carry out attacks aimed at spreading terror and tarnishing the reputation of the People’s Defense Forces and other resistance groups by trying to blame those attacks on opponents of the regime. In addition, they are undercover as spies to denounce government opponents. When they have received the necessary information,the Tatmadaw will do the rest. The groups are very dangerous and increasingly active since mid-May. They are responsible for numerous bombings of schools, hospitals and even the NLD offices in Mandalay and Rangoon in mid-June, as well as numerous killings of anti-government protesters, including village leaders belonging to the NLD and even NLD MPs.
They are faced with increasingly radical groups of mostly young anti-government protesters who have gone underground and in turn carry out attacks on police posts and government buildings and who also regularly slit their throats or shoot government officials. However, contrary to the Pyusawhti or the Tatmadaw, these groups have a code of conduct and it is very unlikely that such a group, even if not under the command of the NUG parallel government, would attack schools, hospitals or facilities of the NLD.
Since the coup, there have already been more than 300 bombings in the country. It is becoming increasingly dangerous in Myanmar, who is in the wrong place at the wrong time, can quickly have a losing streak.
And then there is the new Covid wave, which is currently completely out of control. Myanmar seems to be heading towards a severe COVID-19 crisis that could devastate the country, bringing the virus under control is a challenge that the junta and the health system are not up to in the current conditions. ” The junta lacks the resources, capabilities and legitimacy to bring this crisis under control, " said UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Tom Andrews. The regime in Myanmar has imposed a nationwide lockdown for this week, while increasing the number of public holidays this week from two to five to curb the spread of COVID-19, while the number of infections and deaths in the country continues to rise. The junta announced last Wednesday that July 17-25 will be official holidays.
Last Wednesday, Myanmar reported 145 deaths – the highest daily number since the military coup. (On the pandemic in Myanmar, the reflection pages will bring their own contribution next week)
And as if all this was not enough, there is a threat of famine in the near future due to the civil war-related crop failures this year and the lack of income due to the collapse of the economy and the pandemic.
3. Spy Software and Ethics
Already two years before the coup, in January 2019, the ministry responsible contacted the mobile phone companies to discuss the technical aspects of monitoring voice, SMS and data. The ministry, then under the NLD government, was staffed with former military officers and allocated 6.19 billion kyat (about € 3.2 million) in the budget for 2019-20 to implement a system that would be able to intercept up to 120 calls on the Telenor network at the same time and also monitor one gigabyte per second of the company’s customer data. In December 2020, Telenor sounded the alarm, revealing that the authorities would soon have direct access to user data in real time
Then, a few months before the coup on February 1, telecommunications and Internet providers were ordered to install spy software that would allow the army to eavesdrop on citizens ' communications. After the coup and as a result of the large-scale protests, the regime once again ordered all operators to install the eavesdropping technology and set them a deadline of July 5 for the authorities to spy on calls, messages and web traffic and track users.
However, it is still unclear to what extent the two foreign providers Telenor and Ooredoo (Qatar) have complied with this. A cybersecurity law requires telecommunications providers to provide data upon request and to remove or block content deemed disruptive to” unity, stabilization, and peace." To this end, the regime also requires the disclosure of data about its users, such as their home addresses and call logs. At the same time, the data protection laws were repealed.
When the government of Myanmar introduced the presentation of an identity card or passport for SIM card registration in 2019, Telenor expressed concerns about the lack of data protection rights. Despite this, the company canceled unregistered SIM cards in June last year.
Against the provisions of the junta, the telephone companies cannot defend themselves: “The operators must provide this information that we request to arrest or verify a person, or action will be taken against them,” said a police official. The requests for information may include the identification document used to register a SIM card, records from cell towers that can be used to track a person’s movements, as well as a customer’s home address and call history, the police official said. The official, who is part of a new cybersecurity team within the police, confirmed that they can access this information from all four mobile operators in Myanmar. The regime can use it to collect all the data it wants and there are no rules on how to deal with it. This represents a significant risk for every customer.
After initially informing the world about the generals ' directives, Telenor has since been forced to silence the regime. The disclosure of user data to the authorities puts many people at risk. Telenor, which says it attaches great importance to human rights and responsible business practices, now does not want to help the junta further restrict Internet access and target opponents of the regime by passing on its user data to a regime determined to crush any opposition.
At present, the military still relies mainly on informants to pursue its opponents, but this could soon change. The increased use of surveillance technology will make it easier for the regime to track down protesters and opponents of the regime in the future.
The violence has displaced more than 200,000 people since the coup. They have gone into hiding and are on the run from arrest by the Tatmadaw. Many of them are wanted for participating in the civil disobedience movement against the military dictatorship. They sleep in the same place no more than two nights in a row. More than 900 people have already been killed by the security forces, and 5,200 are in custody, the United Nations reports. You can’t risk your mobile phone telling you where you are.
Words such as” revolution “and” protest " are entered into the system. If the system finds that someone often uses these words, the person is put on the list of suspects, and then the police listen to their conversations. In the case of those arrested, the data is extracted from their mobile phones and laptops in order to find more suspects. The police check the mobile phone, the phone lists and the chat applications, Facebook and the photo gallery to find more suspects or friends associated with an arrested person. The data found will also be used as evidence in the” courts " of the military.
But not only the phones of the already arrested opponents of the regime are searched. The Tatmadaw, in their attempt of total control and intimidation of the population, also indiscriminately and arbitrarily stop people on the streets and demand the surrender of their mobile phones to search it for suspicious content. If they find what they are looking for, then the owners are arrested and interrogated at the station or even immediately thrown into prison or worse. The goal is to instill fear in people. In addition, there are often raids during the night curfew. The Tatmadaw enter the houses to search them for suspicious material or hidden persons. Here, too, the mobile phones and laptops are usually searched for regime-critical data.
The withdrawal of Telenor represents a setback for the activists. Telenor had so far resisted the military’s orders as best it could, while the two Myanmar companies Mytel and MPT (Myanma Posts & Telecommunications) were expected to implement the junta’s demands to spy on their customers one-on-one. Many mobile phone users had therefore switched to Telenor after the coup. Activists expressed concern about the withdrawal of Telenor. They saw Telenor as the safest operator and trusted that Telenor would not share their data.
Telenor had committed itself to transparency, in contrast to the other mobile operators in Myanmar, but is no longer able to remain transparent after the coup attempt. Mobile operators in Myanmar have no choice but to follow the junta’s instructions, contrary to their own security concerns.
But the withdrawal of Telenor is also criticized by the opponents of the regime as hasty. Telenor would have made things too easy, many think. The company is majority owned by the Norwegian state. The Norwegian king even traveled personally to Myanmar in 2014, at the beginning of the beginning of the activities of Telenor, and was received there by the government with all the state honors. Many criticize the fact that the Norwegian state should have intervened at the diplomatic level and talked to the generals Tacheles, instead of making itself sanguine and soundless from the dust.
Curse and blessing of mobile communications
As helpful and convenient as the use of mobile radio may be nowadays, it also poses great dangers for its owner if the data that is generated during its use gets into the wrong hands and can be accessed. Since the spread of mobile phones with built-in cameras for taking pictures, it is difficult for both sides, both the regime and its opponents, to keep something secret. This is not only true in Myanmar.
The military has taken power in Myanmar and it has weapons. The Tatmadaw alone decide in Myanmar what is law and what is not. The judiciary is not independent, lawsuits against actions of the Tatmadaw are meaningless. There is no separation of powers. If Telenor does not comply, the security forces will storm their offices and use force to get the information they want. And they will arrest the entire staff at the same time.
The regime’s demands to allow Telenor to access users ' calls, text messages and internet usage data in real time are common in many countries and are known as “legitimate eavesdropping.” In Myanmar, however, there are no controls, such as a judicial review of what data may be monitored and under what circumstances. No judge has to give prior approval for wiretapping, which Tatmadaw does what she wants.
The development in Myanmar should give thought to anyone who reveals their data on the Internet on social media. Most believe that nothing can happen, that they are innocent citizens and do nothing forbidden. You wouldn’t have anything to fear if someone knew who was there.
The people of Myanmar were also unblemished citizens until the first of February. They were nurses, doctors, lawyers, teachers, state employees or they were schoolchildren and students. Nothing special, mostly not even politically active. Some of them were mayors, village leaders or even members of parliament.
After the coup, many of them are now on the run, have to hide and are advertised for search. Because they participated in demonstrations, because they participated in the civil disobedience movement or because they belong to the NLD, the party that had put the previous government and won the last elections in November 2020 by an overwhelming majority.