Tech

Myanmar junta demanded telcos activate phone interception tools – and we refused, says Telenor

Norwegian mobile carrier Telenor has revealed one reason it is quitting Myanmar is that the nation’s ruling junta wanted it to intercept calls carried on its network.

Myanmar’s democratically elected government was usurped by a military junta in February 2021. Internet blackouts followed as the military sought to limit opposition. Telenor, which has a history of championing human rights, voiced its opposition to those blackouts, wrote off the value of its Myanmar operations, then sold its local network to a Lebanon-based entity called M1 Group.

We’ll revisit M1 Group in a few paragraphs.

First we need to explore a Wednesday announcement from Telenor that states: “Developments since the military takeover made it clear to us that our continued presence would require Telenor Myanmar to activate intercept equipment for the use of Myanmar authorities.”

The post claims that the tech the junta wants “is subject to Norwegian and International sanctions”. Installing or operating it is unacceptable to Telenor, on grounds that doing so violates its company values, its human rights obligations, and international law.

“Having worked actively to avoid activation of intercept equipment, Telenor Myanmar Ltd. has until now not activated this equipment and will not do so voluntarily,” the statement adds.

The allegation of carriers being forced to intercept calls is significant, as is Telenor’s refusal to do so.

But this story has another twist, because protestors have pointed out that M1 Group – we promised you they’d re-appear – may not be a very nice entity.

A complaint to the OECD states M1 Group has “a history of business in authoritarian countries including Syria, Sudan and Yemen”.

Complicating matters further is that Najib Mikati, a founder of M1, was recently appointed Prime Minister of Lebanon. Numerous reports, such as this one from France24, say Mikati was nominated to the post by Hezbollah – an organisation named as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US State Department and many of its mirror agencies in other nations.

Even Myanmar’s junta reportedly worries about the M1 Group. Japanese outlet Nikkei reported that it may call off the deal over fears about M1 Group’s activities.

Myanmar opposition groups also worry that Telenor selling to M1 may therefore run counter to the Norwegian company’s professed values.

Telenor has addressed such criticism with posts like this September 1st missive in which it argues that the company can’t operate in nations where it can’t exercise its values.

“Remember that the human rights violations in Myanmar are due to the change of regime, not the sale of Telenor,” the post states.

Wednesday’s post again addresses critics of the sale, using the requirement to intercept calls as evidence that the carrier simply cannot continue to operate in Myanmar.

M1 Group, for its part, according to a [regwalled] report, observe its own ethical standards by respecting human rights in Myanmar. ®




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