Telenor and Ooredoo win Myanmar telecoms licenses

Myanmar has chosen the two winners of its new telecoms licenses.

Telenor Mobile Communications of Norway and Ooredoo of Qatar won the highly competitive process, getting 15-year licenses for mobile phone operations and spectrum. France Telecom’s Orange and Marubeni Communications of Japan were selected to step up as backups if either of the winners fail to meet the government’s requirements.

Losers include South Africa’s MTN, George Soros’ Quantum Group, Jamaica-based Digicell, and India’s Bharti Airtel, among others; Vodafone and China Mobile dropped their joint bid in early June.

Challenges ahead
The winners have their work cut out for them. Operationally, the government wants mobile voice penetration to reach 75% by 2018, though less than 10% of the country currently has access to voice calls. The companies will need to build substantial infrastructure, a challenge in a country where only 13% of the population has electricity.

In terms of human rights compliance, the tasks are no less daunting. Access has written about the legal and historical roadblocks users in Myanmar face to realizing their rights to access to information, freedom of expression, and privacy. After decades of undemocratic military rule, rife with corruption and human rights atrocities, Myanmar presents a host of unique obstacles to rights-respecting operations. Any company entering the market risks complicity in human rights violations, in no small part because of the military’s expanding land holdings and entrenched political powers. For example, companies may be forced to deal with the military, directly or otherwise, in order to make economic transactions.

Adding to the uncertainty, a new telecoms law is expected in July. Existing law allows the government to “preserve or introduce new mechanisms for surveillance and censorship” without safeguards. The lack of information about the new law frustrates corporate due diligence efforts.

Human rights policies and accountability
Increasingly, companies in the information and communications technology sector are realizing they, along with governments, have responsibilities under human rights law and norms. According to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, a company’s public statement of policy, approved by senior management, is the “basis for embedding their responsibility to respect human rights.”

Telenor, which has over 149 million mobile subscribers even before counting their subsidiaries, has actively worked with civil society organizations, including Access, and responded to Human Rights Watch, as part of their human rights due diligence. They operate in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Hungary, Serbia, Montenegro, Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, and through their subsidiary Vimpelcom in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.

While its subsidiary Vimpelcom has drawn attention for alleged bribes in post-Soviet republics, Telenor has taken steps to ‘know and show’ it understands its responsibilities under international law and norms. It participates in the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue on Freedom of Expression and Privacy and has an evolving human rights policy.

Ooredoo is the new name of state-owned Qatar Telecom/Qtel. The incumbent telecom in Qatar, where it held a monopoly until 2006, Ooredoo (meaning “I want” in Arabic) holds a controlling interest in Indonesia’s Indosat, Wataniya in Kuwait, Nawras in Oman, Tunisiana in Tunisia, and Nedjma in Algeria.

Lucy Purdon of the Institute for Human Rights and Business notes that Ooredoo lacks a human rights policy. Its “Corporate Social Responsibility Strategy” says the company strives to be a “good corporate citizen,” but without adequate policies and procedures, there’s no guide for employees to follow, or benchmarks for users and investors to hold the company accountable to.

Moreover, companies must assess the risks particular to their sites of operation. Myanmar’s laws present one set of obstacles. Various restrictions on access to communications technology combined with overly broad defamation and national security provisions provide the government many ways to suppress expression and target users. Companies must carry out human rights impact assessments to gauge these risks and present plans to prevent and mitigate harms.

Despite these challenges, guidance for telcos operating in emerging markets like Myanmar does exist. Access’ Telco Action Plan outlines 10 steps every rights-respecting telco should take to prevent and mitigate harms, and our new Telco Remedy Plan presents methods for identifying and remedying those abuses that do occur. In addition, the US State Department’s Reporting Requirements for companies operating in Burma provide a roadmap for all corporations to follow in their disclosures. Transparency is a clear step all telcos and other ICT companies in Myanmar can take toward more accountable operations.

Access is willing to work with the winning bidders in Myanmar and other telcos looking to maximize their positive impacts and prevent human rights abuses.