Gunn Wærsted – Chair of the Board, Telenor
After the end of military rule in 2011, access to affordable connectivity was important in the continued development of the society in Myanmar. How Telenor Myanmar was built from 2014 onwards is something everyone in Telenor is proud of, and it was strongly supported by Norwegian politicians.
The company developed into a very profitable business. Financially, we would have benefited from remaining in Myanmar.
However, the financial consequences meant nothing for the assessments that resulted in the sale. It was something completely different that guided us.
The power of the gun prevails
Myanmar is a country mired in a civil war-like conflict. In such a situation, ordinary laws and regulations do not apply, and international condemnation has little effect.
People are imprisoned for no legitimate reason. Stories abound of torture and executions without trial. It's the power of the gun that prevails.
Over time, maintaining operations in such a situation will result in violations of Norwegian and international laws as well as sanctions and human rights.
Continued operation in a sustainable way is impossible.
Telenor's Board of Directors has spent many meetings discussing what the right solution and best way forward is. It became clear early on that it was not possible to find a solution that met Telenor's principles of responsible business, morals and ethics.
We have faced very difficult dilemmas and choices between bad alternatives. In such a situation, principles become important.
Principles that stand against each other
I learned early on that principle has a price. It's only when push really comes to shove those principles become more than great words. Principles come at a cost.
An important principle is that no employee should have to sacrifice their life or health. Another important principle is that customers' safety must be ensured. A third principle is that Telenor shall run its operations based on good morals, ethics and integrity. And, needless to say: Laws and regulations in the markets in which we operate, Norwegian and international, shall be complied with.
But what do you do when the principles stand against each other and not everyone can be fully adhered to?
Even now that the sale of Telenor Myanmar has been completed, there are decisions and dilemmas that we still cannot be open about. This is because we still fear reprisals against the 730 employees who still work in Myanmar and who are unable to leave the country.
The overriding then became to ensure employee safety. No employee of Telenor should have to sacrifice their life.
So, what about customer safety? Some have argued that Telenor, in order to avoid risk to its employees, has endangered customers.
The brutal truth is that no telecom operator in Myanmar can uphold international standards and safeguard customers' rights in these circumstances.
In order to avoid reprisals and very serious incidents for employees, direct orders from the military regime must be followed.
Historical customer data is stored partly digitally and partly physically (on hard drives). Deleting data of this magnitude is time-consuming and likely to be detected while being carried out. In addition, deleted data can be recovered.
Since the coup, mobile customers in Myanmar have faced increased risk. Many have used encrypted communication channels. Telenor's assessment has always been that what carries the greatest risk to customers is the equipment that allows for wiretaps and the location of conversations while they are in progress.
This eavesdropping equipment has not been turned on at Telenor Myanmar. But if employees had been threatened, it would have happened. This is how the brutal logic of the power of the gun works.
The consequences of the military regime
There are clearly not many buyers of businesses in Myanmar, even profitable ones such as Telenor Myanmar. Telenor believes that the agreement with M1 that was completed last week is the least bad option.
There is a great need for telecom services in the country, perhaps especially now. We note that M1 has sold part of the business to a local company to meet the demands of local authorities.
The frightening truth is that if a regime is willing to use force to access historical customer data or use wiretaps, it will happen regardless of who owns the company.
Even an employer that requires employees to oppose orders and through it risks life and health cannot prevent the military from breaking in and carrying out what they want.
So brutal are the consequences of the military regime. No business can solve such consequences individually and on its own.
First published in Aftenposten, 29.03.2022 (in Norwegian)