Telenor Myanmar’s buyers have financed atrocities and cosied up to dictators

July 9, 2021

Telenor’s announced June 8 sale of their Myanmar business to M1 Group raises severe human rights and corruption concerns for the people of Myanmar. The military’s brutal and illegal February 1 attempted coup killed freedom of expression and the right to privacy in Myanmar, and Telenor’s rapid-fire sale is a further nail in the coffin.

Telenor Myanmar’s buyer, M1 Group, is a holding company owned by the Mikati family, who are Lebanese oligarchs. Founded by former two-time Prime Minister of Lebanon Najib Mikati and his brother Taha, the family is mired in corruption and have a history of cosying up to dictators, disregarding human rights and privacy in search of profits.

M1 Group has links to the Myanmar military through their investment in telecommunications tower company Irrawaddy Green Towers, which does business with military-controlled mobile operator Mytel.

Najib and Taha are considered the richest people in Lebanon, with a net worth of $2.7 billion. They live a lavish lifestyle with private jets and luxury properties in London, New York and Monaco. Their mega-yacht alone, named Chopi Chopi, is valued at over $100 million, comparable to the price they’re paying for Telenor Myanmar.

In 2019, corruption charges were filed against Najib Mikati in Lebanon for illicit gains through a subsidised housing loan scheme. In May, 2021, the public prosecutor overseeing the charges against Mikati, as well as other high profile cases, was removed from office, in a move the International Commission of Jurists described as an “attack” on the judiciary.

A review of the Mikatis’ business track record shows how reckless Telenor’s sale is. The Mikatis’ history of unethical business deals should serves as a warning for the people of Myanmar, who could be stuck with this company for decades.

The Mikatis’ telecommunications track record

The Mikatis have deep experience operating mobile networks under dictatorships that commit grave and systemic human rights violations.

In 2005, Azmi Mikati, current M1 Group CEO, who is overseeing the Telenor Myanmar buyout, commented, "The telecom business is actually quite resilient to civil instability… There are problems or conflicts that have impeded development in all of the countries where we operate, but the flip side is that the potential for growth is huge."

The Mikatis established Investcom in 1982, a telecommunications conglomerate that specialised in serving dictatorships, which used offshore tax havens.

In 2001, Investcom entered the telecommunications market in Syria under the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship, in a revenue sharing agreement with the state. At the time, the Assad regime was notorious for its denial of basic human rights. According to Forbes, Najib Mikati is a long-time personal friend of Bashar al-Assad.

In July 2005, Investcom launched a mobile network in Sudan, during the height of Sudan’s genocide in Darfur. Investcom reportedly paid Sudan’s dictatorship 150 million Euros for the licence. While indiscriminate and brutal attacks were taking place, international war criminal and dictator Al Bashir attended the mobile network’s launch, according to a Yale Law School report. The Mikatis’ Sudan investment was steered by Azmi Mikati, then chief executive of Investcom and current CEO of M1 Group.

In Yemen, Investcom partnered with Shaher Abdulhak, a Yemeni businessperson with close ties to the country’s former dictator, Ali Abdullah Seleh. A network of companies in tax havens later facilitated violations of international law, uncovered by the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, including secret payments to Ali Abdullah Saleh after he was sanctioned by the UN.

In 2006, South African telecommunications conglomerate MTN took over Investcom after it was listed on the London Stock Exchange. The Mikati family got 10% of MTN, through M1 Group, becoming one of MTN’s biggest shareholders. Azmi Mikati was appointed as a non-executive director of MTN.

As a key investor in MTN, the Mikatis are tainted by MTN’s business conduct, which includes allegations of paying protection money to the Taliban in Afghanistan, paying bribes to enter Iran (with legal proceedings ongoing in South Africa) and violating US sanctions.

MTN has an alarming track record when it comes to fulfilling their human rights responsibilities. A 2019 ranking of digital rights noted that MTN “lacked strong governance and oversight over human rights issues, and disclosed almost nothing about policies affecting freedom of expression.”

M1 Group’s links to Myanmar

M1 are no strangers to Myanmar. The holding company owns a minority stake in Irrawaddy Green Towers (IGT), one of Myanmar’s biggest tower companies. IGT’s business model is to build and operate telecommunications towers around Myanmar that are leased to telecommunications operators.

In 2017, IGT entered into a master lease agreement with military-controlled mobile operator Mytel for 677 towers nationwide. It is not known if the agreement has been expanded since the original announcement. Their master lease agreement with Mytel means that IGT directly profits from Mytel and it enables Mytel to increase market share through their partnership with IGT. In sum, IGT’s business model involves profiting from military business.

In the lead up to the Rohingya genocide in June 2017, IGT made a 5,000,000 MMK (US$3,644) donation to the commander of the Naypyidaw Regional Military Command, Lt Gen Myint Maw, purportedly for victims of a military plane crash. The donation is a sign of IGT’s close ties to the Myanmar military. As commander of the Naypyidaw Regional Military Command, Lt Gen Myint Maw is directly involved in the Mytel network, which planned a mobile car tower at command headquarters.

During the Myanmar military’s campaign of genocide against the Rohingya, an IGT tower used by Telenor in Alethankyaw, a fishing community in Maungdaw Township of Arakan State, was used as a sniper post from which soldiers murdered Rohingya.

The attack was detailed in a report published by the Bangladesh-based Rohingya independent media organisation Kaladan Press: “Well over a hundred villagers were killed as they fled or tried to hide near their homes. Scores of bodies were dragged by troops and thrown into wells, as well as dumped under the Telenor tower, and into a pond near the beach.”

Telenor’s role in the atrocity is now the subject of an OECD National Contact Point Complaint in Norway.

In Telenor’s response to the complaint, they explained IGT’s role: “The Alethankyaw tower (known as RA0224 – all towers have a unique identifying code) was commissioned by Telenor Myanmar Ltd, but Telenor Myanmar Ltd does not own or operate it. It is owned and operated by the tower company named Irrawaddy Green Towers who leased the land from the land owner.”

In 2019, IGT was named by the UN Fact-Finding Mission because of their commercial relationship with Mytel, implicating M1 Group. The group was also added to Burma Campaign UK’s Dirty List. M1 Group has not publicly responded to their business dealing with the Myanmar military through Mytel.

Telenor’s irresponsible exit

Telenor’s rapid-fire sale of their Myanmar business to the Mikati family is a deplorable failure of the company’s human rights responsibilities. Telenor, and the Norwegian government as its majority shareholder, are not only disengaging their business but they are leaving Myanmar at a crucial time in the popular struggle against the military’s attempted coup.

What can the Myanmar people expect from the Mikatis?

The Mikatis’ business record is marred by corruption and a long history of cosying up to dictators, with a disregard for the right to privacy and freedom of expression, in stark contrast to Telenor’s albeit limited attempts to protect human rights.

Telenor’s sale to the Mikatis will further embolden Myanmar’s military junta, who have weaponsied telecommunications as part of their widening nationwide campaign of terror. The military junta is deploying intercept technology and has a wide range of tools for electronic surveillance. The military’s surveillance will be enabled by the Mikatis’ takeover of Telenor, putting the lives of activists, journalists and anyone opposed to the military junta at greater risk.

Justice For Myanmar calls on Telenor and the Norwegian government to immediately reverse this shameful sale, which is still subject to regulatory approval. Any sale must take into considerations the human rights impact.