OECD accepts Burmese CSO complaint over sale to M1 Group

OECD accepts Burmese CSO complaint over sale to Mikati-owned M1 group
3 min read
01 October, 2021
The OECD accepted to hear the complaint, which alleges Telenor has failed to asses the human-rights risk of its pullout from Myanmar.
Activists fear the M1 Group would have little qualms in turning over personal data to the military junta.

A complaint filed by Burmese civil society organisations (CSOs) over Norwegian telecom firm Telenor’s sale of its Myanmar operations to the Lebanese M1 Group was accepted by the OECD’s national contact in Norway on Monday.

The complaint, filed on behalf of 474 Burmese CSOs, accuses Telenor of not doing its “due diligence” and failing to “mitigate adverse human rights impacts potentially arising from the sale of its Myanmar operations.”

The OECD’s National Contact Point in Norway declared the complaint “material and substantiated” and need further examination. It offered to mediate between the Burmese CSOs and Telenor, but thus far Telenor has not responded to the offer.

“The sale to the M1 Group would put the lives and security of millions of users and democracy activists in Myanmar at risk,” Joseph Wilde-Ramsing, a senior researcher with the Center for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) which filed the complaint on behalf of the Burmese CSOs, told The New Arab.

Telenor, which is majority-owned by the government of Norway, sold its Myanmar branch to the M1 Group on 8 July after operating under the Burmese military junta became increasingly difficult. The M1 group is a holding company co-founded by the current Prime Minister of Lebanon, Najib Mikati.

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The junta, which took power in February 2021, had reportedly prevented its executives from leaving the country and forced the company to provide access to subscribers’ data and call history. Citing these concerns, Telenor wrote over $700 million of the Myanmar branch’s value and sold it to the M1 Group for $105 million.

Burmese previously viewed the Norwegian cell provider as the safest telecom operator in the country. Activists fear that the sale to the M1 Group, which has a history of working with authoritarian regimes like in Syria, Sudan and Yemen, will cooperate with the military junta and not protect the privacy of its users.

Tormod Sandstø, Telenor’s director of Media Relations, told The New Arab that though it “shared the complainants’ concerns about the serious situations in Myanmar,” it disagrees with the criticism directed at Telenor in complaint. “From the outset [we] expressed openness for dialogue with the complainants,” he said.

He declined to comment further on the OECD complaint, as “the National Contact Point requested both parties … not to further comment on the process while it’s ongoing.”

The acceptance of the complaint does not halt the sale to the M1 Group. Though, if Telenor turns down the mediation or the two parties fail to reach an agreement, the OECD can launch an investigation into the sale to determine whether Telenor complied with OECD guidelines

Despite Norway not having clear laws regarding turning down of OECD mediation, “the material consequences for companies in countries like the Netherlands and Canada—where there are such laws—are significant,” Wilde-Ramsing said.

“Such companies lose access to government-backed export credit insurance, foreign trade support, public procurement contracts and tax incentives,” he added.

If the sale goes through, the M1 Group will inherit all of the infrastructure in Myanmar currently run by Telenor, granting them access to any subscriber data stored.

Human rights groups have expressed concerns that in doing so, subscribers, especially activists, could be exposed to repression and reprisal from the regime given that Sim cards are tied to ID cards in Myanmar.

For now, subscriber data seems to still be in the hands of Telenor, as according to Sandstø, “ownership of Telenor Myanmar, including call data records will be transferred to M1 Group” once it receives regulatory approval for the sale from the Burmese government.

The press office of the M1 Group told The New Arab that it "was not in a position" to comment on the complaint since it "solely concerns Telenor Myanmar." It added that it "is committed to upholding human rights, and respecting the laws of the countries it operates in globally, including Myanmar."