It's taken far longer than expected, but Telenor confirmed that its plan to exit Myanmar has now been approved by the military junta, enabling the Norwegian group to escape what it previously indicated has become an almost impossible situation.
In a statement, Telenor Group said it has been informed that the Myanmar Investment Commission has given final regulatory approval to the sale of Telenor Myanmar to Lebanon-based M1 Group.
A key condition for the sale was that M1 Group should have a local partner, although Telenor has emphasized that it has not been involved in this side of the discussions. M1 told the group that its local partner Shwe Byain Phyu has now acquired 49% of Investcom, the Singapore-based company set up by M1 for the purchase of Telenor Myanmar.
After the transaction closes between M1 and Telenor, M1 will sell an additional 31% of Investcom shares to Shwe Byain Phyu, a group that sells petrol under an SBP Oil brand and also mines precious jewels. Telenor announced in July last year that it would sell its operations in Myanmar to M1 Group for $105 million.
Sigve Brekke, president and CEO of Telenor Group, acknowledged the company's profound sadness over its Myanmar exit.
"Leaving Myanmar was a decision we made with heavy hearts, and I would like to thank our employees and customers for their dedication to Telenor throughout our years in Myanmar," Brekke said.
He reiterated that Telenor has to leave Myanmar "to be able to adhere to our own values on human rights and responsible business, and because local laws in Myanmar conflict with European laws."
Brekke added: "With limited options available, the sale of Telenor Myanmar is deemed to be the most realistic alternative to keep our employees safe. Because of the current situation, we are significantly constrained in our choices and with this approval the transaction can be finalised."
Between a rock and a hard place
Telenor has constantly been forced to defend its decision to sell its operations in Myanmar, insisting that it can no longer continue to operate in the country because it could be forced to break international law if it remains. A key reason why Telenor is selling Telenor Myanmar is that it does not want to activate intercept equipment, which it noted is now a requirement for all operators.
Despite its clearly untenable position in the country, not everyone is convinced that Telenor is doing the right thing by selling. Indeed, the group itself has long acknowledged that many groups in Myanmar and elsewhere have been calling for Telenor to remain in Myanmar "due to our demonstrated commitments to human rights, responsible business, and international best practices."
The concern is that the handover could put the data of 18 million people in the hands of the military junta, which has been in charge since the army coup in February 2021. Reuters noted that the chairman of Shwe Byain Phyu reportedly has a history of business ties to the military, although the group has denied this.
Telenor said that while it was involved in the selection of the local partner, "sanctions screening from external consultants has assured Telenor that Shwe Byain Phyu and its owners are not subject to any current international sanctions."
Access Now, a non-profit founded in 2009 with a mission to defend and extend the digital civil rights of people around the world, said it was outraged by today's announcement.
It is now calling for international actors to implement sanctions and stop what it described as the company's "irresponsible disposal of its Myanmar operations."
"It's not over until it's over," said Wai Phyo Myint, Asia-Pacific policy analyst at Access Now. "The Telenor sale approval does not come as a surprise, but it is a major kick in the guts for human rights defenders on the ground. The purchaser, Shwe Byain Phyu, may not be sanctioned now – but it needs to be."
- Telenor under scrutiny over 'dilemma' of Myanmar exit
- Telenor Myanmar sale back on as M1 finds local partner – report
- Telenor inches towards Myanmar exit with Wave Money deal
— Anne Morris, contributing editor, special to Light Reading