Myanmar’s military junta confirmed that it asked executives from the Norwegian telecommunications company Telenor not to leave the country, pending the authorities’ approval of the company’s deal to sell its operation in the country.
In an interview with Reuters published yesterday, Aung Naing Oo, the military-appointed investment minister, said that the military administration wanted “to have discussions physically with some of the Telenor management.” He admitted, “It’s kind of a request not to leave the country.”
Aung Naing Oo’s comment confirms the claim, also reported by Reuters in July, that senior telecoms executives had been barred from leaving the country. The news agency reported at the time that Myanmar’s Department of Posts and Telecommunications had issued a confidential order in mid-June stating that senior executives of telecoms firms, both foreigners and Myanmar nationals, must seek special authorization in order to leave the country.
In his interview with Reuters this week, Aung Naing Oo said that the move only applied to Telenor, “not to foreign telecoms officials from all foreign telecom companies.” He said the restriction was in place because the junta “want to have discussions physically with some of the management in Telenor.”
In July, the Norwegian firm, announced the sale of its mobile operations in Myanmar to M1 Group, a Lebanese company, for the knockdown price of $105 million, two months after booking a loss of nearly $800 million on its investment. The company stated that “further deterioration of the situation and recent developments in Myanmar form the basis for the decision to divest the company.”
In addition to the severe deterioration in the business environment that followed the coup, the sale may also have been motivated by the junta’s attempts to force Telenor, along with the country’s other three telecoms firms, to implement special intercept technology in order to permit the authorities to spy on calls, messages, and web traffic.
Telenor reportedly resisted the requests to install the technology. In its May statement announcing that it was fully impairing its Myanmar operations, the company called on the military administration “to immediately reinstate unimpeded communications and respect the right to freedom of expression and human rights.”
The departure of Telenor, whose entry to the Myanmar market in 2014 symbolized the optimism of the political and economic opening then underway, points to the increasingly severe and challenging operating environment facing foreign firms.
The confirmation from Aung Naing Oo also comes amid similar reports that the military junta has begun to impose broader restrictions on departures from the country. According to a report yesterday by Coconuts Yangon, Myanmar citizens are being turned away from Yangon’s airport in order to prevent them from leaving the country. Citing travelers and tourist agencies, it reported that 17 travelers were blocked from embarking on flights at the airport last weekend. It cited an airport employee as stating that new restrictions have been put in place to prevent people from leaving the country.
For what exact reason one can only guess. But with Myanmar junta’s coming under increasing international censure, foreign nationals and capital slowly draining out of the country, and the popular resistance to the junta spreading, the country’s cloistered military rulers seem set on battening down the hatches, and returning the country to its close-woven cocoon of isolation.