Norwegian state-owned telco Telenor Group is in the midst of selling its Myanmar operations to Lebanese holding company M1 Group for $105 million.

That company is now thought to be readying to sell 80 percent of its stake in Telenor Myanmar to Shwe Byain Phyu, a local conglomerate with alleged ties to the military junta.

Telenor Myanmar's headquarters in Yangon – Bjoertvedt

Telenor first announced its sale last July, after the 2021 Myanmar coup d'état brought a brutal military junta into power. The military told telcos that "they had until Monday July 5 to fully implement intercept technology they had previously been asked to install to let authorities spy on calls, messages and web traffic and to track users by themselves," forcing Telenor to try to offload the division, lest it get caught in European Union sanctions.

Telenor is officially still only trying to sell its business to M1, but it is believed that military leaders have suggested they will block the deal unless Shwe Byain Phyu is given a controlling stake.

That company, human rights groups allege, has a long history of working with the Myanmar military and sanctioned business like the military-owned Myanma Economic Holdings Limited conglomerate.

Justice for Myanmar reports that Shwe Byain Phyu also has links to military conglomerate Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) through its investment in military-controlled mobile operator Mytel. MEC is also sanctioned EU, UK, and US.

Shwe Byain Phyu also at some point operated a jade mining business that it ran through joint ventures with the military-controlled Myanma Gems Enterprise (MGE). It is not known if this partnership with MGE is ongoing. MGE is sanctioned EU, UK, and US.

The company is also partnered with sanctioned government corporations for a logging business.

Human rights groups are concerned that a sale of the business will not only help the military surveil its people, but give them access to historical user data.

Two employees of Telenor Myanmar told Reuters that this was already happening - authorities asked for call logs of people they had detained in connection with opposition to last February’s coup, as well as the last known location of people in hiding. Telenor complied.

“We’re angry and scared,” one of the employees said. “We believe after the sale [Telenor] will give customers’ data to the military.”

In a statement, Telenor said it could not delete customer data as it would breach its telecoms license and “violating or not complying with local regulations under the existing legal framework would have severe and completely unacceptable consequences for our employees.”

Justice for Myanmar called on the sale to be stopped, adding: "If the sale goes through and the terrorist junta gains control of Telenor Myanmar, these individuals could be complicit in crimes against humanity."

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