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March 31, 2021updated 29 Nov 2021 9:40am

No easy answers for telecom operators in Myanmar

By GlobalData Technology

Soon after the coup, Myanmar’s military junta (Tatmadaw) ordered all telecom operators to shut down mobile data in the country. In the order, the Myanmar Ministry of Transport and Communications (MoTC) cited Myanmar’s Telecommunication Law, specifically the issue of fake news, as the legal basis of the order.

By 15 March 2021, along with the escalation of political and social unrest, what was thought to be a temporary order has since intensified from night time blocks to a country-wide 24-hour shutdown on mobile data and even some Wi-Fi services. It was reported that the military council was now issuing directives, ranging from bans on VPNs to Twitter, on almost a daily basis.

Termed as “kill switch” tactics, these actions aim to hamper media coverage and efforts of organised opposition by cutting off access to means of mass communication, such social media, which were instrumental to recent revolutions like the Arab Spring. This is by no means the first time that such measures have been employed, having been utilised in the Rakhine and Chin state in June 2019 while under civilian rule.

Outsiders have important stakes in Myanmar telecom

Japan, Norway, Qatar and Vietnam have important stakes in Myanmar’s telecommunications industry. MPT, the state-owned incumbent operator has a strategic partnership with Japan’s KDDI and Sumitomo Corporation for joint operation of mobile communications since July 2014. Qatar’s Ooredoo group operates in the country as Ooredoo Myanmar, one of the four major telecom operators.

The newest entrant, Mytel, is a joint venture between Myanmar’s military and Vietnam’s military-owned Viettel. However, no other operator has been more vocal than the Norwegian Telenor Group, which operates Telenor Myanmar.

Complying with these orders contradicts with many of the principles of the group and of the liberal democracy it originates from, such as freedom of speech, the right to privacy and abiding to international human rights laws.

Telenor has lodged multiple protests, including against the Myanmar Cyber Security Bill and when it recently paid its annual license fee. Telenor is clearly torn between the principles it believes in and does not want to be seen as complicit to the actions of the Tatmadaw, but at the same time, needs to be compliant with the law.

Concurrently, being seen as enriching the Tatmadaw could put its properties at risk of vandalism and destruction by the Civil Disobedience Movement, which has been seen with Chinese businesses.

Restoration of internet unlikely

However, as the human rights situation worsens in Myanmar and the country appears to be descending into a civil war with various ethnic militia groups reportedly unifying into an armed resistance group, it is unlikely that the Tatmadaw will allow the restoration of internet access, which they know will be used to organise resistance against their regime.

The priority may soon not even be freedom of speech, but rather the protection of the life of employees and property. In any war, cutting the lines of communication is a priority, making telecom infrastructure prime targets.

While armed conflict has not yet fully broken out and the network remains forced shut, it may be wise to deactivate and store some detachable high value components of infrastructure, such as base station board cards, batteries and antennae, before they are lost for good.