Navy coup places Telenor’s future in Myanmar on the road By Reuters
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Telenor flag flutters subsequent to the corporate’s headquarters in Fornebu, Norway, June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins/File Picture
By Victoria Klesty, Gwladys Fouche and John Geddie
OSLO (Reuters) – Since Myanmar’s army ordered telecoms operators to close their networks in an effort to finish protests in opposition to its February coup, Telenor’s enterprise there was in limbo.
As one of many few Western firms to guess on the South East Asian nation after it emerged from army dictatorship a decade in the past, the return to military rule led to a $783 million write-off this week for Norway’s Telenor.
The Norwegian state-controlled agency, one of many largest international buyers in Myanmar, should now determine whether or not to experience out the turmoil, or withdraw from a market which final 12 months contributed 7% of its earnings.
“We face many dilemmas,” Telenor Chief Government Sigve Brekke informed Reuters this week, highlighting the stark issues dealing with worldwide companies beneath elevated scrutiny over their publicity in Myanmar, the place tons of have been killed in protests in opposition to the Feb. 1 coup.
Whereas Telenor plans to remain for now, the longer term is unsure, Brekke mentioned in a video interview.
Though Telenor had gained reward for supporting what on the time was a fledgling democracy, activist teams have lengthy voiced considerations about enterprise ties to the army, which have intensified because the military retook management of the nation.
Chris Sidoti, a United Nations skilled on Myanmar, mentioned Telenor ought to keep away from funds resembling taxes or licence charges that would fund the army instantly or not directly, and that if it can’t be independently decided that Telenor is “doing extra good than hurt” in Myanmar, then it ought to withdraw.
Nevertheless, Espen Barth Eide, who was Norway’s international minister on the time Telenor gained a licence in Myanmar in 2013, informed Reuters that Telenor ought to keep and use its place as a well-established international agency to be a vocal critic of the army.
A spokeswoman for Norway’s Ministry of Commerce, Trade and Fisheries, which represents the Norwegian authorities as a shareholder, mentioned on Thursday that “beneath the present circumstances Telenor faces a number of dilemmas in Myanmar”.
“From a company governance perspective the funding in Myanmar is a accountability of the corporate’s Board and Administration. Inside this framework the Ministry as a shareholder hold an excellent dialogue with Telenor relating to the state of affairs,” the spokeswoman added in an emailed response to Reuters.
The Myanmar junta, which has mentioned it seized energy as a result of its repeated complaints of fraud in final 12 months’s election had been ignored by the election fee, has blamed protesters and the previous ruling get together for instigating violence.
And it mentioned on March 23 that it had no plans to raise community restrictions. It has not commented on the curbs since and didn’t reply Reuters calls on Thursday.
Telenor is not any stranger to working beneath army rule in each Pakistan and Thailand, the place it challenged the Thai junta over what it mentioned was an order to dam social media entry.
At across the identical time, Telenor was signing up its first prospects in Myanmar.
Its then-CEO, Jon Fredrik Baksaas, informed Reuters that Telenor had thought “so much” concerning the danger that Myanmar’s experiment with democracy won’t final.
“However we argued at the moment that, after we get in a western firm that delivers telecommunication in a rustic, we stand additionally with some accountability, and a little bit of a assure that issues are executed accurately,” Baksaas mentioned.
Its place had help internationally on the time after Barack Obama turned the primary U.S. President to go to Myanmar in 2012, the 12 months after a army junta was formally dissolved and a quasi-civilian authorities put in.
For its half, the Norwegian authorities, which owns a majority of Telenor, had lengthy supported democracy in Myanmar, internet hosting radio and TV stations reporting on it beneath army rule.
And in 1991, the Norwegian Nobel Committee gave the Nobel Peace Prize to Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years beneath home arrest in Myanmar earlier than main a civilian authorities which retained energy in final 12 months’s election.
Suu Kyi was detained after the coup and charged with offences that her attorneys say are trumped up.
Whereas Norway was supportive of Telenor’s Myanmar enterprise, the federal government additionally warned of the dangers, Barth Eide, Norway’s international minister on the time, mentioned.
“We informed them that it is a difficult nation which had a harsh army dictatorship. Telenor was very a lot conscious of it … It is not like they had been novices,” he added.
Telenor was one in every of two international operators granted licences in 2013, alongside Qatar’s Ooredoo. The opposite operators in Myanmar are state-backed MPT and Mytel, which is part-owned by a military-linked firm.
About 95% of Telenor’s 187 million prospects worldwide are in Asia and it has round 18 million prospects in Myanmar, serving a 3rd of its 54 million inhabitants.
(Graphic: Telenor subscribers worldwide, https://graphics.reuters.com/MYANMAR-POLITICS/TELENOR/qzjvqbqyrpx/chart.png)
(Graphic: Telenor’s earnings in Myanmar, https://graphics.reuters.com/MYANMAR-POLITICS/TELENOR/xegpbdndqpq/chart.png)
‘NO DIRECT LINKS’
For Telenor, doing enterprise in Myanmar had its challenges, together with attempting to keep away from business ties to the army.
Former CEO Baksaas mentioned for the primary couple of weeks after it started operations in Myanmar, employees needed to sit on the workplace flooring as a result of Telenor refused to pay bribes to customs officers for furnishings which it had imported.
He additionally mentioned they needed to navigate corruption dangers when buying land to construct cell towers.
Then there was coping with the army, whose financial pursuits vary from land to companies concerned in mining and banking. The army has confronted allegations of human rights abuses together with persecuting minorities and violently suppressing protests going again many years. It has repeatedly denied such allegations.
Activist group Justice for Myanmar mentioned in a 2020 report that Telenor had proven “an alarming failure” in its human rights due diligence over a deal struck in 2015 to construct cell towers that concerned a army contractor.
One other report by the United Nations in 2019 mentioned Telenor was renting places of work in a constructing constructed on military-owned land.
The report mentioned companies in Myanmar ought to finish all ties with the army resulting from human rights abuses.
A Telenor spokesperson mentioned in an e mail on April 9 responding to Reuters questions that it had addressed the matter of the 2015 deal, with out elaborating, and that its selection of workplace was “the one viable choice” given components like security.
“Telenor Myanmar has been targeted on having minimal publicity to the army and haven’t any direct hyperlinks to military-controlled entities,” the spokesperson mentioned.
Because the coup, Telenor has minimize ties with three suppliers after discovering hyperlinks to the army, the spokesperson added.
On the day of the coup, the army ordered Telenor and different operators to close down networks. Telenor criticised the transfer however complied. Companies had been allowed to renew however there have been intermittent requests to shut since, and the cell web has been shut since March 15.
Ooredoo has additionally mentioned it “regretfully complied” with directives to limit cell and wi-fi broadband in Myanmar, which hit its first quarter earnings. It declined additional touch upon the outlook for its Myanmar enterprise.
Like different operators, Telenor paid license charges to the now military-controlled authorities in March, which critics argue could assist it finance repression of public protest.
Telenor mentioned within the emailed response to Reuters that it made the fee “beneath robust protest in opposition to current developments”.
One in every of its main shareholders, Norway’s KLP, mentioned it had been in a dialogue with Telenor after the coup to make sure it was figuring out the human rights dangers.
“It’s a difficult state of affairs as a result of Telenor can’t select what it might and might’t do. They get their directives from the authorities,” mentioned Kiran Aziz, senior analyst for accountable investments at KLP. “It’s troublesome to evaluate how constructive Telenor’s contribution might be on this context.”
Weighing up human rights is simply one of many dilemmas Telenor now faces, mentioned CEO Brekke, alongside safely serving its prospects and sustaining community entry for them.
“We work on that steadiness each single day,” he mentioned.
And though that steadiness, for now, is tilted to Telenor staying within the nation, it’s not a given.
“We make a distinction like we now have executed since we arrived. However with the state of affairs being this unpredictable, it’s unimaginable in some ways to invest concerning the future and the way this can develop,” Brekke added.
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