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Telenor’s exit from Myanmar leaves behind safety and human rights questions

Norwegian telco, Telenor, has announced it is selling off its Myanmar operations to Lebanon-owned M1 Group, and leaving the country amidst the military’s tightening grip over online space and digital communications. 

Access Now is alarmed by Telenor’s rapid exit, which raises serious questions about the safety of the company’s employees left behind, the example this sets for other internet service providers, and the future of rights online in Myanmar. 

“Under mounting pressure from the junta, Telenor is, without any prior warning, abandoning millions of people in Myanmar,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia Pacific Policy Director at Access Now. “We know working conditions became increasingly difficult for the company, but it has a responsibility to the people who rely on its services.”

Throughout the coup, Telenor has been publicly pushing back against internet shutdown and surveillance orders, and sought to be transparent on the government directives it received, but military pressure continued to escalate. Without Telenor’s presence, only one internet service provider not backed by the state remains.

“This isn’t a withdrawal, it’s a disposal, with no plan to protect the vulnerable left behind,” said Isedua Oribhabor, Business and Human Rights Lead at Access Now. “As one of the few international companies holding its ground against the military, and regularly addressing human rights concerns, Telenor was a lifeline. It is not just leaving the country it is leaving its customers in the hands of a company with ties to an oppressive government, and leaving its staff on the ground and civil society partners in the lurch.”

In a statement today, Telenor reiterated earlier remarks that its “future presence [in Myanmar] would depend on the developments in the country and the ability to contribute positively to the people of Myanmar.” The telco’s departure now creates further room for dangerous regressions in online space that — as the military tightens its stranglehold over communication, speech, and information — can negatively impact the lives of people in Myanmar. International alarm bells continue to ring over the junta’s use of surveillance and interception technology. 

The M1 Group who bought the operations for 105 million USD, was co-founded by Lebanon’s richest business leader, and former Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, who was charged with corruption and illicit enrichment in 2019. M1 has dubious links to Myanmar’s junta as a major shareholder in Irrawaddy Green Towers, the largest telecommunications tower company linked to the military joint venture Mytel.

Access Now joins the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar’s call for the international community to intervene in Myanmar.