Leaking military secrets for profit

June 14, 2022

Over almost four years, Mytel has given hundreds of thousands of free SIM cards to active members of the Myanmar military, members of the National League for Democracy-led government and civil servants, who have been exposed to military surveillance. Subscriber recruitment was carried out through two sales campaigns launched in 2018 for serving military members and for “VIPs”, revealed in leaked documents received by Justice For Myanmar. Mytel’s recruitment campaigns demonstrate the systemic corruption of the Myanmar military, with top generals abusing their positions for personal profit.

Mytel is operated by Telecom International Myanmar, whose shareholders include Viettel Global Investment, a holding company of Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defence, and Myanmar military conglomerate Myanmar Economic Corporation, which is under the supervision of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. A minority of shares are held by a holding company for Myanmar investors. Mytel was created by the Myanmar military as a public private partnership, with Myanmar Economic Corporation appointed as the government shareholder. Even before the military’s unlawful attempted coup, revenue was hidden from democratic scrutiny.

Mytel’s “Banner of Victory”

In order to recruit subscribers within the military, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing allowed Vietnamese military operatives to collect a trove of military secrets to drive Mytel profits.

In April 2018, the management of Telecom International Myanmar approved a “sales campaign for the military”, with a target of recruiting 25,300 active subscribers in April alone, with military commanders as the first priority. The campaign was named “aung ta khon” or banner of victory, a military term that evokes the vanquishing of enemies. This campaign took place before Mytel’s public launch in June 2018.

The aung ta kon campaign plan, which Justice For Myanmar has on file, instructed Mytel staff to prepare a list of all military bases in preparation for the campaign. This was to be followed by visits to each base where staff would collect data on military personnel, including name, rank and military ID, with the support of base commanders. Commanders were to receive financial incentives for ensuring their troops regularly top-up their Mytel credit, a structure which exploits rank-and-file soldiers.

The document estimated that the total size of the Myanmar military was 386,500 troops across 379 military bases.

Additional secret military information collected for Mytel’s database included the name of the unit each member of the military belonged to and their GPS coordinates. This included the composition of intelligence units.

As part of the promotion, military personnel received a free SIM card that started with 0969 and was personalised with their military ID. This allowed superior officers to easily identify the phone numbers of troops under their command.

The use of “969” in Mytel’s number allocation signalled support for extremist Buddhist nationalists, and contravened Myanmar’s Numbering Rules, which Justice For Myanmar has documented.

The military sales campaign was overseen by Mytel’s CEO, Colonel Nguyen Thanh Nam, with the support of Mytel’s sales, business strategy and finance departments, all headed by appointees from Viettel Global Investment, under Vietnam’s defence ministry.

A source with knowledge of the campaign told Justice For Myanmar that sign-up for active members of the military was compulsory. The head of each military unit was responsible for ensuring troops under their command subscribed to the mobile network and regularly topped-up their balance. As a result, around 90% of active military personnel use Mytel, amounting to billions of Myanmar kyat in annual revenue (personnel in bases without Mytel reception were necessarily excluded).

In a 2018 press conference, Mytel’s external relations officer Zaw Min Oo denied that troops were forced to sign-up for Mytel and denied that subscription fees were deducted from soldiers’ wages.

Mytel’s roll-out in the military has created a high surveillance risk for serving members, particularly those joining the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) following the military’s attempted coup. Through Mytel, the Myanmar and Vietnamese militaries have capabilities to monitor the private communications of Myanmar troops and track their location.

Mytel’s “VIPs”

Mytel’s reach has extended into all levels of the state through its “VIP” campaign, launched in 2018, which has exposed members of the state to military surveillance and provided the Vietnamese military with access to data on state officials and business leaders, including their personal communications and location.  

As part of the campaign, Mytel aggressively recruited members of the government and business, offering generous promotions to government officials with free monthly credit, and even offering VIPs bespoke phone numbers or numbers with repeated digits.

The “VIP” campaign organised targets into six groups, according to status. VIP1 category targeted the state counsellor, president, vice presidents, commander-in-chief and the army’s quartermaster general, who were offered unlimited calls and internet.

VIP2 included ministers, the supreme court justice, the chair of the Central Bank of Myanmar, house speaker and heads of the telecommunications regulator and tax office, who were offered a 200,000 MMK monthly balance and unlimited internet for two years.

It is notable that Vice Commander-in-Chief Soe Win is in the VIP2 category, in an inferior position to the quartermaster general, who is lower in the chain of command. The quartermaster general plays a key role in military business, including Mytel.

VIP3 included categories for the senior management of large businesses, specifying banks as a target. This category contained the competitors of Vietnamese businesses operating in Myanmar.

Other categories organised targets based on rank in government ministries and state-owned enterprises, all the way down to township officials.

According to a source with knowledge of the campaign, before the attempted coup, the majority of civilian government ministers had received Mytel VIP SIM cards and many had used the operator for years.

The cartel’s carrier

Mytel serves a military purpose.

The carrier’s 2018 sales campaigns exposed Myanmar troops, state officials and business leaders to Myanmar military surveillance, with support of the Vietnamese military.

As previously documented by Justice For Myanmar, Mytel operates towers on military bases, which are likely used to supplement military communications. The Myanmar military has granted Viettel staff access to restricted military infrastructure, who have mapped bases for tower construction.

The Myanmar army’s signals directorate is also operationally linked to Mytel and the mobile network uses the military’s network of fiber optic cables.

Mytel provides the Myanmar military leadership with capabilities for internal surveillance, which is a particular concern since the coup attempt, as people’s soldiers continue to heroically join the CDM.

Mytel is incredibly lucrative. Myanmar’s generals benefit through access to Vietnamese investment and technology, and future profits. Justice For Myanmar estimates that Mytel’s Myanmar military owners are projected to earn more than US$700 million in a decade from Mytel’s fifth year of operation.

The Myanmar military leadership has consistently espoused the slogan of "perpetuating national sovereignty" as a pretext for their ongoing atrocities against ethnic people. Mytel’s 2018 campaigns shows again that Myanmar's corrupt generals put their narrow interests first. In pursuit of profits, Myanmar's generals are even willing to leak military secrets to Vietnam.

The Spring Revolution has shown that the military’s power is fragile and limited. The Myanmar military cannot return to the status quo of the last ten years, in which it can commit atrocities and grand corruption with total impunity. The only option now is for the military to be removed from the economy and fully under civilian control for Myanmar to build a federal democracy and achieve a sustainable peace. The cartel will be dismantled. Boycott Mytel. Sanction Telecom International Myanmar!