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It is regrettable that these Israeli and Lebanese companies can reach such risky agreements without external pressure or sanctions, a sign that the international community's concern for human rights in Myanmar is waning.
This article was translated from Arabic.
On February 1, 2021, the military in Myanmar staged a coup against the government. It resulted in the arrest of the president, U Win Myint, the state Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as senior leaders of the ruling National League for Democracy party.
The military junta, headed by Min Aung Hlaing, has been in charge of the nation since it declared a state of emergency. It imposed martial law in a number of towns and regions which is still in force today.
The country has seen significant political and security upheaval over the past two years as a consequence of widespread anti-military protests. Following swift and secret trials, 114 political opponents were given death sentences by the coup authorities in an effort to put an end to these protests.
The Association for the Assistance of Political Prisoners estimates that an additional 14,847 people have been unlawfully arrested for political reasons, while the United Nations reports that over 2,000 people have been killed by the army during protests.
The coup authorities’ involvement in the telecom industry
Like many oppressive governments, the Myanmar army has exercised strict control over the telecommunications industry. This control is used to keep tabs on political activists’ whereabouts and foresee protests.
Military officers were promptly appointed to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Communications after the coup. These officers have been employed to operate software that allows for wiretapping phone calls, monitoring text messages, and surveilling internet activity, including emails and passwords.
To ensure complete control, the putschists imposed restrictions on private telecommunications company managers, requiring permission before leaving the country and prohibiting communication with the media or discussion of the state’s intelligence strategies. The army’s first actions after the coup included cutting off the internet, and restoring it only after blocking a list of websites and installing technologies to monitor user activity.
Nearly two years after the military coup, the involvement of Lebanese and Israeli telecommunications companies in supporting the Myanmar army’s control of the telecommunications sector has become evident. Their support has enabled the army to bypass ethical standards that typically govern the telecommunications sector, thereby aiding in the repression of opponents.
Lebanese M1 Group: Taking advantage of the coup
Prior to the coup, Telenor, a Norwegian company, was one of the largest providers of internet services and cellular communications in Myanmar, having gradually expanded its customer base since 2014. However, following the coup, the company chose to exit the Myanmar market after being asked by the coup authorities to activate programs for military tracking of cellular network and internet users.
Telenor’s decision was due to concerns over violating European Union and Norwegian laws, which could result in sanctions. As a company owned by the Norwegian state and listed on the Oslo Stock Exchange, with a significant presence in Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Norway, Telenor was eager to exit the Myanmar market with minimal losses.
Lebanese M1 Group saw these developments as an opportunity to enter the Myanmar telecommunications sector by purchasing Telenor’s branch for no more than $105 million. The Lebanese company was able to acquire these assets at a low price, far less than their actual value, because of prestigious international companies’ reluctance to work with the Myanmar military regime due to fear of international sanctions and exclusion from Western markets.
Unlike other international companies, the M1 Group was willing to carry out the demands of the coup authorities in the telecommunications sector. The M1 Group’s arrival in Myanmar provided a solution for the putschists, as it was willing to manage the sector while permitting the military to wiretap citizens. Telenor’s data supports the connection between the sale process and these accounts and considerations.
M1 Group’s experience in dealing with police states
M1 Group, is owned by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, his brother Taha and some members of their family. The Mikati brothers have a long history of working in the telecommunications sector in countries ruled by repressive regimes under foreign sanctions. This experience has allowed them to form relationships with rulers seeking control over their country’s telecommunications sector.
For instance, the Mikati brothers established a cellular communications network in Syria after being granted a 15-year concession when President Bashar al-Assad came to power. They shared this privilege with the president’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf.
The Mikati family also acquired licenses to set up telecommunications companies in Sudan during President Omar al-Bashir’s term, despite the sanctions imposed on his regime. In Yemen, the Mikati family’s companies found a way to bypass the sanctions imposed on the Houthis through companies registered in tax havens in order to operate in the telecommunications sector.
M1 Group’s partnership with the putschists in Myanmar
M1 Group was able to enter the Myanmar market by leveraging its experience in working in developing countries where Western companies are unable to due to international sanctions. The Group also demonstrated flexibility in disregarding ethical standards that typically govern telecommunications companies, particularly in regards to user privacy under repressive regimes.
M1 Group’s purchase of Telenor’s operations in Myanmar was ultimately approved by the military council, but only after it entered into a partnership with the local company “Shwe Byain Phyu.”
Examination of this company’s history revealed that its operations were primarily focused on the distribution of petroleum products, with no prior experience in the communications field. This highlights the military council’s intent to solidify control over the telecommunications sector through M1 Group’s management of operations.
After Telenor’s exit and M1 Group’s entry into the Myanmar market, the military authorities expanded the use of AI techniques to monitor internet traffic without limitations. They also began openly using information generated from surveillance as evidence against political opponents.
At the same time, security campaigns were conducted to search citizens’ electronic devices for any applications that could be used to bypass surveillance and eavesdropping.
Israeli company “Cognyte” was also involved
In January 2023, the organization “Justice for Myanmar” released documents proving that Israeli company Cognyte won a tender to provide Myanmar with special software for spying on all user activities.
The documents show that the Myanmar authorities aimed to equip all private telecommunications companies with this software to locate mobile phones, monitor internet activity and even record text messages, passwords and phone calls.
The project was expected to be completed by June 2021, and Reuters reported that experiments on operating the software had already taken place. With this project, however, Cognyte violated decisions issued by the Israeli Supreme Court in 2017 to halt defense exports to Myanmar to avoid their use in human rights violations.
A complaint has been submitted by over 60 Israelis, including activists, academics and a former speaker of Parliament, and will be considered by the Israeli attorney general. The complaint accuses Cognyte and Israeli officials, who were aware of the deal, of committing crimes against humanity by providing the Myanmar authorities with tools to monitor political opponents.
Companies based in Israel and Lebanon have assisted in the repression in Myanmar by providing the essential tools to use the telecommunications industry as a weapon against the opposition. It is regrettable that these businesses can reach such risky agreements without external pressure or sanctions, a sign that the international community’s concern for human rights in Myanmar is waning.
M1 Group – Right of Reply
Though the writer (Ali Noureddine) didn’t explicitly claim that M1 Group may be involved in a direct or indirect “collaboration with an Israeli telecommunications company” in Myanmar, we feel that this was somehow implied, in the headline and between the lines. Subsequently, we categorically deny, refute and reject such insinuation or implication.
Regarding Investcom PTE Ltd. telecommunications operations in Myanmar, we would like to reiterate the fact that it will always remain politically neutral and law-abiding, despite the nation’s polarization and nature of the governing system. Obviously, ATOM Myanmar will not facilitate or allow unlawful interception requests &/or equipment; and will always act in a legal, ethical manner when it comes to the installation, usage &/or transfer of lawful interception technology.
At all times, M1 Group continues to advocate globally for consumer protection regulations, especially in terms of data security, data resilience, user privacy, connectivity, roaming, internet access, and others.
What is being interpreted as a “long history of working in the telecommunications sector in countries ruled by repressive regimes under foreign sanctions,” is in fact one of M1 Group’s differentiating elements in terms of its willingness, or rather readiness, to operate in markets which are considered “high-risk” by other companies (mostly Western, MNCs).
The group’s original decision to invest in the telecom sector was and is still based on the fundamental premise that connectivity is a basic human right and that every individual, in every country – including Myanmar, and others – has the right to have access to essential telecommunications infrastructure.
Providing essential and independent telecommunications services; and investing in advanced infrastructure and connectivity; are all critical to support consumers’ rights, economic growth, sector development and stability, mostly in areas of conflict around the world.
Finally, while the article didn’t explicitly call for “external pressure or sanctions” against the mentioned company(ies), we appreciate the writer’s acknowledgement, though in private, that “these companies didn’t violate any existing international sanctions.” Most importantly, M1 Group and its affiliates will never allow the violation of international sanction rules whatsoever, including matters such as: company ownership &/or control by sanctioned persons &/or alleged associates; financing; and others.