In post-coup Myanmar, telco operators act as the military’s eyes and ears

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A still from the Tech Tales film ‘Black Out’

This article was written by Mi-Kun of Visual Rebellion, a collective for Myanmar journalists, photographers, filmmakers, and artists to publish their productions following the 2021 military coup.

The February 2021 coup, incessant internet and electricity shutdowns, rising poverty, and security risks of communicating on the phone meant a sharp downturn in profit for telecommunications operators in Myanmar. As businesses’ profits stumbled and investments slowed to a standstill, people feared the return of a dark monopoly in the telecommunication sector.

In 2012, then-President Thein Sein initiated a series of economic liberalization reforms, including the end of the monopoly of state-owned Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT), paving the way for foreign business and investment in the country. Over the past years, the telcos operating in Myanmar such as Mytel and Telenor have faced a host of issues: from ties with the military junta and privacy concerns to the rising cost of internet packages that affect millions of users.

Since July 2021, all Myanmar-based operators chose to suspend their investments and steadily raise the price of data packages for internet access in an attempt to limit their losses. The cost hike in July only targeted phone data, but then in September, at-home Wi-Fi and Fiber package prices also shot up. On December 7, 2021, the Ministry of Transport and Communications under the military council officially ordered telecommunications companies to restrict internet speed and raise prices, much to the great despair of a young woman from southern Rakhine state.

“I haven’t been at school for one and a half years because of COVID-19 and then the coup. The only thing that kept me going and gave me perspective for the future was my online English lessons. Now I can’t even afford to buy the 1 GB of data I need to attend the course on Zoom, as it went from 1,000 to 3,000 MMK from one day to another. The cheapest I found is 2,850 MMK from the military-owned network MPT, which I would never use,” she said.

She explained further: “We can’t install Wi-Fi because my house sits between two hills, and the lines are not there. I asked my friend who has Wi-Fi if I could come to his home to follow my lessons, but he told me that he would cancel his subscription because the line connection is poor and because he can’t afford it anymore. It tripled to 75,000 MMK per month for all operators except Mytel, which kept it at 28,000 MMK for now. They want to take everything from us and force us to support their companies.”

Mytel: ‘Tatmadaw in commercial form’

Mytel is a joint venture between Myanmar military officials and Viettel, owned by Vietnam’s Defense Ministry. Initially, Mytel offered discounts as an attempt to keep its previous ten million customer base after it was targeted by a widely-followed boycott campaign after the coup. Since August 2021, Mytel Pay, Easy Pay, and MPT Money have been on the Civil Disobedience Movement’s (CDM) list of boycotted entities, along with Asian Green Development Bank, two military-owned banks, and four state-owned banks, according to “Myanmar’s Banking Crisis”, a privately-circulated report by the group Independent Economists of Myanmar.

The Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) describes Mytel as “nothing but the Tatmadaw in commercial form.” It noted that the group has been accused of spying on users, data mining, and conflict of interest in erecting telco infrastructure. Mytel was also accused of land rights abuses “including illegally developing infrastructure on ethnic Kayin land.”

In March 2021, Justice for Myanmar (JFM) disclosed that the military may be entitled to receive over US$700 million in dividends over 10 years for their share in the military-controlled mobile network operator.

“These astronomical profits come from the people of Myanmar who are suffering immensely under the military’s tyranny. Every phone call on the Mytel network and every kilobyte of data finances the people’s oppression,” the group said.

Meanwhile, the business ties between the militaries of Myanmar and Vietnam (Viettel) are a source of great worry for users. Via Mytel, Viettel, and its military shareholders, Myanmar’s generals gain unrestricted access to money, technology, and data that can be used for surveillance. A phone shop owner in downtown Yangon interviewed in mid-August said that during the revolution, the number of people buying new Mytel cards went down while sales for Ooredoo and Telenor SIM cards went up.

“People broke, burnt, and threw away their Mytel SIM cards. Users of all Mytel-related apps downgraded and wrote bad reviews on the Playstore/App Store, and Mytel-related businesses were shut down after being reported as scams on Facebook.”

From February to April 2021, boycott efforts against Mytel reportedly cost the network USD 24.9 million and a loss of two million subscribers. Passive resistance soon turned into forceful resistance. Just after Mytel relaunched its business page on Facebook in September 2021 (after being earlier taken down by Meta), People’s Defence Forces (PDF) groups launched a wave of attacks on hundreds of Mytel telecom towers across the country. The majority of the bombings were in the Sagaing-Magway borderlands.

“Our attacks interrupt connectivity for Mytel users, and that is one of our objectives, to damage the service and cut the military’s revenue streams,” a PDF member explained to DVB.

DVB also found that each Mytel tower costs between USD 200,000 to 300,000 – “a significant burden to bear for Mytel, who now face the dilemma of establishing security measures to protect some 4,488 transmission towers and 14,129 base transceiver stations.”

The hostilities around one of the most crucial public military monopolies have been escalating. In September 2021, a police officer was shot dead in front of the Mytel office in Monywa, targeted by a bomb a week earlier. On October 18th, 2021, 30 youths were arrested in Pyapon, Ayeyarwady after a Mytel telecom tower was bombed nearby. As conflict erupted in every corner of the country, the military council, which doesn’t have enough men to provide security for all of its infrastructures, announced that landmines had been planted near some towers and is threatening to shoot those who approach the towers.

In Yesagyo, Magway, Muse, and Shan State, Mytel employees fell victim to mine explosions. One lost a leg after stepping on one of the mines. In Mawlamyinegyun township, villagers have been ordered to guard a Mytel tower at night or be fined 20,000 kyats. On November 4, Thein Aung, a former major in Myanmar’s navy and Mytel’s Chief Financial Officer, was shot dead while he went for a walk with his wife, who was also injured. He held leadership positions in multiple military-owned ventures, including as the general manager of the conglomerate MEC and its subsidiary Star High Company Limited. Nobody has taken responsibility for the assassination, the most notable of a junta associate since the coup. However, four people accused of being part of the Yangon Defense Forces (YDF) have been arrested for the killing.

The Telenor takeover

The bloody battle around Mytel runs parallel to the chaos surrounding the Norwegian company Telenor, which had been considered the most transparent telco provider in Myanmar. Of Telenor’s 187 million customers worldwide, 95% are in Asia, including 18.2 million customers in Myanmar, a third of the population.

After seizing power, the Tatmadaw drastically ramped up online repression. It enacted legal amendments to gain access to user information and issued daily notices to mobile operators and internet service providers to blacklist certain websites and virtual private networks (VPNs). Telenor found itself in limbo and determined that it could not operate under the pressure and governance of the junta.

In July 2021, Telenor moved to sell its Myanmar branch for USD 105 million to the Lebanon-based M1 Group. The company was worth an estimated USD 600 million. “There are three reasons why we think a sale is necessary: it is the safety of our employees, but also the regulatory conditions and also that there is good compliance,” Telenor CEO Sigve Brekke told Reuters. “When we wrote off the business in May, we felt we could still operate in the country, although it was challenging. But after that, it has worsened,” the company added in a statement.

Without offering details of how and by whom the metadata of its former customers would be handled, Telenor was hastily sold to M1 Group, a business that has a history of working with oppressive regimes such as Sudan and Syria. M1 Group’s founder is Lebanon’s current Prime Minister, who is accused of significant corruption by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in the Pandora Papers.

According to Sutawan ‘Ploy’ Chanprasert, founder of Digital Reach, a nonprofit organisation looking at the impact of tech on freedom of expression, privacy, and digital security in Southeast Asia, selling the business to M1 Group “weakens human rights in the country, especially the right to privacy and freedom of expression. However, it should be noted that no business that respects human rights would operate easily inside the country. Only those that comply with the junta’s orders would be able to survive.”

The military junta has forced telecommunications providers to install intercept spyware, giving them the capacity to listen in on calls, view text messages and emails, and track the location of users without the assistance of telecommunications and internet companies. “However, as Telenor exits the country, they should be more responsible. If the metadata of their users fell into the junta’s hands, it is very obvious that this will make people even more vulnerable to having their rights threatened,” Ploy added.

When people are arrested, they are led to interrogation centres where they are first forced to unlock their phones and uncover their lists of contacts and conversations on messaging apps, including the encrypted ones that the military council now has the tools to retrieve. Before the coup, it was possible to buy pre-registered SIM cards without providing any identification paper trail. Now, to register a SIM card Myanmar citizens now have to provide their National Registration Citizen number, which contains their photo and other personal information, and captures details from names in their network such as activities and locations. All this information can be exposed by unlocking one phone or account, even more so as Telenor was the preferred network of activists.

In an interview, Matthew Mullen, founder of the business and human rights advisory group Article 30 and the author of “Pathways that Changed Myanmar” (Zed Books, 2016), added: “Telenor has faced a lot of pushes and pulls. There have been calls for boycotts and pleas to stay. That reflects the battle for the Internet in Myanmar: people want and need the Internet, and the Tatmadaw is seeking every opportunity to exploit that demand. Stakeholders knew that Telenor was in a tough spot. They didn’t expect a miracle. But they did want to see Telenor attempt to do right by Myanmar’s netizens. The decision to sell to M1 Group, the lack of due diligence and disclosure, none of it has indicated genuine concern for the risks to people.”

In July 2021, the Center for Research on Multinational Corporations made a joint complaint with 474 Myanmar-based civil society organisations regarding Telenor’s exit, which was officially accepted by the Norwegian National Contact Point. The Institute for Human Rights and Business also made several suggestions for Telenor, such as finding a more responsible buyer, donating any proceeds of the sale to the CDM, protecting its employees, and establishing a fund to assist former customers who may be targeted by the regime using Telenor’s user data.

A year after the coup, the price of a Telenor SIM card alone had more than doubled as it was unclear if the company will continue to supply new stocks. On January 6, 2022, the junta levied an additional compulsory 20,000 MMK (11.50 USD) activation fee on all SIM cards. People now have to spend 21,500 MMK to buy and activate a SIM card compared to 1,500 MMK (0.85 USD) in an official shop and 300 MMK (0.17 USD) on the black market before the coup, without the benefit of any user data protection policy regardless of the operator.

During the same period, Telenor also agreed to sell its 51% stake in the mobile payment service Wave Money to its main partner, a consortium led by Singapore-listed Yoma Strategic Holdings. The company is owned by Myanmar tycoon Serge Pun, the CEO of New Yangon Development Company.

On May 30, 2022, four months after M1 Group acquired Telenor Myanmar Limited, it changed its brand name to Atom Myanmar. “The change of the company name is to reflect the post-transaction situation,” the company said. “With this change, Atom Myanmar Limited will keep up the strength of our capabilities in the wide market and provide better communications services and more business opportunities for entities and individuals. Other than the name change, there will be no effect on the range of services and products.”

On the heels of Telenor’s sale, Qatari company Ooredoo signed an agreement in September 2022 to sell its Myanmar branch to Singapore-based Nine Communications for USD 576 million. Nine Communications is the subsidiary of Link Family Office and Nyan Win, which have close ties to Burmese military officials such as Soe Maung. The deal size has courted significant scrutiny for its involvement by business proxies commonly used by the Burmese military, including entities controlled by Zaw Win Shein of Ayeyar Hinthar and Jonathan Kyaw Thaung of KT Group. The announcement of Ooredoo’s sale prompted sharp criticism from rights groups for putting the personal data of 9 million customers in the hands of the Burmese military.

Under junta control

All telecommunications companies currently operating in Myanmar are now under the control of the military council. The junta chose to not completely shut down the internet, but it has resorted to the most effective and easy-to-implement measures, such as cutting off grids and networks, stalking social media accounts, and monitoring smartphones of suspected dissidents. People have reported being sent warnings via SMS, such as in the case of a young woman who relocated to an ethnic liberated area. “There was no such thing before. Now the military council is sending messages to scare people off. They want to show us that the phone data is under their control,” she said.

Considering the general lack of trust in the remaining operators in Myanmar, some activists have requested Elon Musk’s SpaceX company to provide Starlink satellites-based internet businesses in the blacked-out country. The controversial American businessman’s latest venture played an essential role in Ukraine, where many ground communications facilities have been destroyed in Russian attacks, as well as in Iran, where its service was made available in September 2022.

According to the Nikkei Asian Review, SpaceX has sent nearly 5,000 satellites to space since 2019, including more than 1,000 satellites in the first half of 2023, and has applied for permission to operate a total of 42,000. SpaceX’s Starlink satellites can offer high-speed internet access as they orbit 300 to 600 kilometers above the Earth’s surface and Starlink customers only need to install a 50-by-30 centimeter antenna.

Free Burma Rangers, an American NGO funded by a couple of Christian missionaries who provide military training and medical care in war zones, claims that they were able to use Starlink satellites in some parts of Karenni state. But the service is not free and costs from USD 3,000 to 4,000 a month, according to a source working in the area, making it unavailable to most revolutionary forces and civilians.

Until better options are made available for the people of Myanmar, it seems that the public will continue to live under ongoing surveillance and worries over their safety. A journalist working in conflict areas says, “We have no other choice than to use a military-owned telecom service, coupled with a VPN paid subscription and a lot of self-censorship.”

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