Intelsat leasing satellite capacity to Myanmar junta that can be used for military communications

August 4, 2021

Global satellite corporation Intelsat is providing the Myanmar junta with unrestricted access to transponder capacity on its Intelsat 39 satellite, which can be used for military communications. The satellite is manufactured by US-based Maxar Technologies, with the capacity branded as Myanmarsat-2. According to Intelsat’s own promotional material, the satellite has military as well as civilian applications. The company has told Justice For Myanmar that they do not know how the Myanmar junta uses the technology.

Intelsat’s corporate headquarters are in Luxembourg and its administrative headquarters are in the USA. Intelsat Global Sales and Marketing Limited, the subsidiary contracted by the Myanmar state, is registered in the UK. Intelsat did not respond to questions from Justice For Myanmar regarding compliance with sanctions and its human rights due diligence. EU and UK sanctions include restrictions on dual use goods and technology used for internal repression.

Intelsat told Justice For Myanmar that the satellite is “to help the Government of Myanmar accelerate deployment of the country’s wireless communications infrastructure, however we are not in a position to answer questions about how they choose to utilise that capacity. Pursuant to our contract, Intelsat isn’t involved in how that capacity is utilised. We provide wholesale satellite capacity services, and have no control over – or visibility into – the content they transmit.”

In addition to leasing satellite capacity, Intelsat also operates an earth station in Myanmar. Justice For Myanmar put a series of questions to Intelsat regarding its earth station, including whether the Myanmar military has access to it and whether the company pays rent to the junta. Intelsat did not respond.

The Myanmar military’s role in the Intelsat deal

Myanmarsat-2 is overseen by the Myanmar Satellite System Steering Committee. The committee, tasked with policy, financial and programme oversight, is dominated by military appointees despite being set up during the National League for Democracy-led government under notification 17/2017. Headed by military-appointed Vice President Lt Gen Myint Swe, members included the defence minister and home affairs minister. A photo of the first coordination meeting shows the participation of a uniformed official from the army’s Directorate of Signals, although the Directorate of Signals is not officially a member of the committee.

In 2018, Myanmar’s ministry of transport and communication signed an agreement with Intelsat, following “clearance operations” against the Rohingya, which involved well-documented breaches of international human rights and humanitarian law by the military, amounting to the crime of genocide. The satellite was then launched in 2019 by Arianespace.

Intelsat’s irresponsible Myanmar business

Satellite communications have dual civilian and military use and are key to the operations of modern militaries. Satellites form part of Myanmar’s national communications network and may aid in the military’s information gathering, coordination and bringing surveillance data together, although actual exact use cannot be confirmed. The Myanmar military has prioritised modernisation in recent years and has acquired satellite communications capabilities for frontline troops through the purchase of man packs from Israel’s Gilat Satellite Networks.

Since Myanmar’s brutal attempted coup, the military has intensified its campaign of terror against the people, murdering over 940 and arresting over 5400. The military has indiscriminately bombed ethnic communities and launched ground offensives that have displaced over 200,000 people.

Intelsat was irresponsible to agree to lease satellite capacity to Myanmar after the Rohingya genocide, with no safeguards in place to prevent the use of satellite communications to aid atrocity crimes. Since the attempted coup, the risk of misuse has sharply increased.

Intelsat must now act and put verifiable controls in place to prevent military use of Myanmarsat-2, in cooperation with the National Unity Government. Failure to act could aid the military’s crimes against the people of Myanmar, with Intelsat’s complicity.

We call on the US, UK and Luxembourg governments to ensure that Intelsat is in compliance with sanctions and fulfilling their human rights in Myanmar under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.