ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Myanmar Junta Bars Foreign Telecom Executives From Exiting the Country

The announcement followed reports that the Norwegian telecom operator Telenor was considering selling off its Myanmar operation.

Myanmar Junta Bars Foreign Telecom Executives From Exiting the Country
Credit: Flickr/Remko Tanis

As it faces increasingly violent challenges to its five-month-long rule, Myanmar’s military junta has told foreign executives of major telecommunications firms that they can’t leave the country without permission, Reuters reported today.

Citing a person familiar with the matter, the news agency reported that Myanmar’s Department of Posts and Telecommunications issued a confidential order in mid-June stating that senior executives, both foreigners and Myanmar nationals, must seek special authorization to leave the country.

The order comes amid the junta’s apparent attempts to force the country’s four main telecoms firms to implement special intercept technology that will allow authorities to spy on calls, messages, and web traffic. According to Reuters, a week after the department’s order, telecom companies were sent a second letter telling them they had until today (July 5) to fully implement the spyware intercept.

In May, Reuters published a detailed report revealing that Myanmar’s telecom and internet service providers had been ordered to install intercept spyware in the months leading up the military coup in February.

Such spyware technology would allow the country’s armed forces to eavesdrop on the communications of citizens, particularly anti-junta forces, who have used the internet and social media networks to coordinate and get their message out to the world. Specifically, such a “lawful intercept,” as the technology is official known, would give the military “the power to listen in on calls, view text messages, and web traffic including emails, and track the locations of users without the assistance of the telecom and internet firms.”

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Reuters was not able to establish how broadly such spyware has been installed and deployed, but cited industry sources claiming that the country’s two main foreign-owned telecoms operators – Norway’s Telenor ASA and Qatar’s Ooredoo – had yet to comply with its requests in full.

The travel ban order came as Telenor announced that it was evaluating its position in Myanmar, in light of the chaos that has followed the Myanmar coup. “Due to the continued situation, Telenor Group is in the process of evaluating various options with regards to its presence in the country,” the company said in a terse statement on Friday. “The evaluations are ongoing, and Telenor Group will not make any further comments.”

In early May, Telenor said it was writing off the value of its operation in Myanmar, citing a “worsening of economic and business environment outlook and a deteriorating security and human rights situation.” But despite booking a loss of 6.5 billion kroners (around $783 million), it said it would continue to operate in Myanmar.

That may be changing, with Telenor sources telling Reuters that the company was looking to sell off its Myanmar operation in light of the country’s ongoing crisis.

In light of the increasing pressure from the military junta – in particular, the reported travel ban on senior telecoms executives – it would make sound business sense for Telenor to wash its hands of its Myanmar operation.

But it would be a terrible thing for the informational environment inside the country. Of Myanmar’s four main telecoms networks – the other three are Ooredoo, the state-owned MPT, and Mytel, a joint venture between Vietnam’s Viettel and a Myanmar military-owned conglomerate – Telenor has been most critical of the junta’s internet blockages and requests turn over users’ personal data.

For instance, in its May statement announcing that it was fully impairing its Myanmar operations, the company called on the junta “to immediately reinstate unimpeded communications and respect the right to freedom of expression and human rights.”

Almost by definition, any company seeking to acquire Telenor’s business in Myanmar at the current moment of turmoil would have less compunction about dealing with the junta and acceding to the military’s requests to facilitate its spying on the Myanmar people.

The Norwegian company’s situation thus encapsulates the dilemma now facing foreign companies that invested in Myanmar during the country’s decade of political reform and opening, but now find themselves in the midst of a crisis with no clear end. Should they leave and cede the ground to less scrupulous firms, or stay in the country and run the risk of colluding in the junta’s rule?