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As Myanmar junta extends control over telcos, surveillance and privacy risks increase

Norway’s Telenor is obligated to mitigate the human rights risks of its sale to local operators before the telco imminently changes hands and passes on the private information of millions of people in Myanmar to a military-linked operator, Shwe Byain Phyu Group. 

It is clear the military wants control over Telenor’s Myanmar private customer data through proxy ownership,” said Dhevy Sivaprakasam, Asia Pacific Policy Counsel at Access Now. “This decision to sell to an operator who may well sit in the military’s back pocket — made without transparency or accountability — is its latest effort to extend surveillance through domination of the telecom sector. Telenor and all other operators must push back to protect people’s rights to privacy, free expression, and security.”

On January 21, Reuters reported that the Myanmar military had privately approved the partnership of M1 Group and Shwe Byain Phyu Group, with the latter as majority shareholder in the entity that will be taking over Telenor Myanmar’s operations. This decision was not made public, but is a clear indicator that the Myanmar military is continuing to tighten control of the country’s telecommunications. The risk of surveillance and the abuse of people’s privacy are extreme, and all actors in the telecom sector in Myanmar must urgently act to enforce data protection and privacy safeguards. 

If this sale goes ahead, three out of four operators in the country will have links to the junta, with M1 Group and Shwe Byain Phyu Group joining Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) and Telecom International Myanmar Company Limited (MyTel) — two operators owned and controlled by the military. It can be assumed these providers, and a fourth, Ooredoo, have activated intercept surveillance technology in compliance with junta orders after Telenor revealed they had been “continually pressured” to do so.

“Over the last few months, the military has armed itself with more levers to aggressively curtail internet access and use in Myanmar,” said Wai Phyo Myint, Asia Pacific Policy Analyst at Access Now. “It has significantly increased its grip over communications in Myanmar through increased data tariffs, barriers for SIM card registration, revival of the draft Cybersecurity Law, and continued internet shutdowns and blockings. We must make a stand.”

Since 2021, Access Now has continually drawn attention to the dangers associated with Telenor’s departure and sale to M1 Group given the company’s record of collaboration with authoritarian regimes. This most recent development reinforces the need for urgent  revocation  of the sale — and if not, safeguards to prevent rights violations in recognition of Telenor’s lack of responsibility and accountability in its Myanmar disposal. 

All telecom sector actors are obliged to uphold and protect human rights. Today, in Myanmar, it’s more important than ever.