A murky business partnership between the armed forces of Myanmar and Vietnam, with Myanmar’s Mytel telecom company as a nexus helps funds Myanmar military atrocities in Rakhine state and other conflict zones, an investigative report by human rights activists said.
Mytel, Myanmar’s newest mobile operator established in 2018, provides the military with vast off-budget revenue and a means to access international communications technology, according to the group, Justice for Myanmar.
The group’s 161-page report titled “Nodes of Corruption, Lines of Abuse” says Mytel, owned by Myanmar and Vietnam military holding companies, is a “central node in the military’s network of corruption” that funds operations around Myanmar that lead to human rights abuses.
The Myanmar military is the subject of genocide-related cases in both the International Criminal Court (ICC), which prosecutes individuals suspected of committing crimes against humanity, and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which settles disputes between nations.
The cases in The Hague, Netherlands, stem from scorched-earth crackdowns in 2016 and 2017 on Muslim Rohingya communities in the state, which together drove about 830,000 members of the minority group across the border and into Bangladesh.
Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, told the Human Rights Council in Geneva in September that the Myanmar military’s actions in the two-year-long armed conflict with the rebel Arakan Army in Rakhine state —extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and indiscriminate attacks on civilians — may constitute “further war crimes or even crimes against humanity.”
Yadanar Maung, spokesman for Justice for Myanmar, said in an emailed statement to RFA that revenues from Mytel, exempted from the scrutiny of parliament and the auditor-general’s office, have enabled the military to conduct operations during which human rights violations are committed.
Viettel, a telecom company owned by Vietnam’s Ministry of Defense, controls 49 percent of Mytel shares, Myanmar private companies own a 23-percent stake, and Star High Company Ltd., a subsidiary of military owned conglomerate Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. (MEC), controls the remaining shares.
“Mytel and Viettel aid and abet the Myanmar military’s continuing war crimes and crimes against humanity,” Yadanar Maung said in a statement.
“The military indiscriminately kills, rapes, tortures, destroys homes and forces ethnic and religious minorities to flee,” he said.
“These crimes are enabled by off-budget revenue from Mytel and the military’s other businesses, as well as their access to technology and training from Mytel, Viettel and allied companies.”
Motorcyclists ride past a Viettel store in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in a file photo. Credit: Associated Press
Mytel has more than 10 million subscribers in the country of 54 million people and quarterly profits reported to be U.S. $25 million, the report says.
The report, released on Dec. 20, also investigates Viettel’s business in Myanmar and links to the Myanmar military, citing evidence of the state-owned enterprise, the largest telecommunications service provider in Vietnam, aiding and abetting international crimes and links to corruption.
Viettel officials operate and maintain secret military infrastructure, transfer military and dual-use technology, and operate in Myanmar military bases that are off-limits to the civilian government, the report says.
The report cites the example of a Viettel subsidiary leading the construction of at least 38 Mytel towers that may support military communications on army bases in Myanmar, including regional and strategic operational commands, infantry battalions, and an engineering battalion.
Most of the bases are in areas populated by ethnic minorities and house military units that are directly perpetrating grave human rights violations, the report charges.
Justice for Myanmar used open source material and files from a data breach in which Viettel Construction Myanmar (VCM) unwittingly published internal files online relating to Viettel operations in Myanmar from 2017-2020.
The leaked documents included detailed plans of base transceiver stations, operational instructions, inventories, receipts, photographs and internal policies, which Justice for Myanmar has made available on its website.
Motel’s financial success coincides with its use of state assets, such as military infrastructure, and its intertwined relationship with the Myanmar Army’s Directorate of Signals — business arrangements that profit the military, the report says.
The military’s communications and signals intelligence functions are under the Directorate of Signals, led by Major General Thaw Lwin, a Mytel director, giving the body direct oversight over Mytel’s network and equipment, the report says.
“The institutionalized role of the Directorate of Signals in Mytel is a serious concern, placing what is supposed to be a civil mobile network operator within the army’s tactical communications apparatus,” the report says.
“It is also a severe conflict of interest, as the military and its partners are profiting from public military infrastructure. Major General Thaw Lwin was formerly a director of MEC.”
RFA could not reach Myanmar military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun for comment on the report and the group’s accusations, despite repeated attempts to contact him. Questions sent to President’s Office spokesperson Zaw Htay also went unanswered.
RFA’s calls and emails to Mytel and its Vietnamese partner were not answered.
Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (background, C) visits the headquarters of Telecom International Myanmar Co. Ltd., known as Mytel, in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon, Oct. 11, 2017. Credit: Photo courtesy of Min Aung Hlaing’s website
Reports not given to lawmakers
Justice for Myanmar is not the first agency to tie military businesses to rights abuses.
The U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar said in in August 2019 that international human rights and humanitarian law violations, including forced labor and sexual violence, have been perpetrated by the army in northern Myanmar in connection with their business activities.
Aung Hlaing Win, a National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmaker representing Yangon, said the ruling government has not done anything to stop the military’s unjust actions in the last five years.
“They should have tried to investigate the military’s expenses during parliamentary sessions,” he told RFA, adding that lawmakers were given access to military expenses only during the first years of the current administration.
“We should keep demanding that they give us access to these data,” he said. “Instead of giving us a full accounting, the military gave us reports with only one or two lines such as ‘funds for employee salaries.’”
Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, ran the country for five decades after a 1962 coup. Its political power is enshrined in the 2008 constitution drafted by the ruling military junta that reserves a quarter of the seats in parliament for uniformed soldiers and grants the army control of three security and defense ministries.
RFA was unable to reach members of the Joint Public Accounts Committee of the Union parliament for comment. The body is one of one of two committees tasked by parliament to submit reports related to the government budget bill.
Thein Tun Oo, executive director of the pro-military think tank the Thayninga Institute for Strategic Studies founded by retired military personnel, said the activities described in the report are “very different from the on-the-ground situation because the Myanmar Army’s budget is only used for normal operations.”
“For those crying out about human rights, there can be various accusations, and yet no one can really prove that [funds] are being used in these areas,” Thein Tun Oo said. “Therefore, an allegation is just an allegation.”
Shoppers walk past mobile phone stalls in a mall that reopened after government officials lifted restrictions to stop the spread of the coronavirus in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon, May 17, 2020. Credit: AFP
Judging by performance
Myanmar’s former information minister Ye Htut said Mytel’s business is conducted in line with existing laws and that the report was an attempt to pressure the military over the Rakhine issue.
“The company is investing in the telecommunications sector in Myanmar under Myanmar’s investment laws,” he said. “Neither the ruling government nor the parliament can pressure a firm as long as it is complying with the laws.”
“Pressuring the firm could cause unwanted side effects on other local and international companies,” he added.
“Boycotting Mytel’s service is up to the people,” Ye Htut said. “Most citizens in the country will judge a telecom service provider by their performance.”
Yangon resident Min Thu said he doesn’t use Mytel’s SIM cards for two reasons.
“First, I don’t want to support the military and the businesses related to it when I can choose to use the services of other companies,” he said.
“Second, I’m aware that we are entrusting our all personal data to service providers by using their telecom services, so we might be giving them an opportunity to exploit these data for purposes other than service evaluations,” he said.
The report says that Viettel and Mytel have an international network of suppliers connected to the Myanmar military’s human rights violations, and that firms providing technology and services to the two companies are exposing themselves to risks of contributing to the Myanmar military’s human rights violations, which has accountability implications under international law.
Reported by Nay Myo Htun and Phyu Phyu Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.