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Telenor looking to support Myanmar customers at risk

Illustration shows Telenor logo

OSLO (Reuters) -Norway's Telenor said on Friday it is exploring ways to provide support to Myanmar telecom users facing digital security risks after its exit from the Southeast Asian nation this year.

Following a military coup in Myanmar in 2021, Telenor announced the sale of its business there to avoid European Union sanctions after pressure from the junta to activate intercept surveillance technology.

Telenor completed the exit despite criticism from employees and activists who said the handover could put the data of 18 million people within reach of the ruling military.

The company on Friday said it had agreed with 474 civil society groups, under an OECD complaint procedure, to jointly select an independent researcher to conduct a risk study and support actions recommended.

This will include an exploration "of providing support to Myanmar citizens who are facing risks and impacts associated with their digital footprint", it said in a statement.

Both parties accepted there were "serious risks" to users in Myanmar as well as to former employees for association with the military.

The goal is to reach full agreement by the end of 2022, said Telenor and the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, which represents the civil society organisations.

Telenor sold the business for $105 million to Lebanese investment firm M1 and Shwe Byain Phyu, a local firm whose chairman had a history of business ties to the military. They rebranded the company as Atom.

A former Telenor Myanmar employee said workers faced risks from both the military and armed pro-democracy opposition groups.

The former employee and another person with knowledge of the matter said the military regularly made demands for customer data, including members of the pro-democracy movement.

The sale put "everybody's lives at risk," they said. "We want Telenor to take some responsibility," they added, asking for security and support for employees, including offers of relocation or compensation.

Atom did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the Myanmar military did not answer phone calls seeking comment.

Telenor told Reuters it shared a "deep concern for the people of Myanmar" and intended to listen to all concerns as it moves forward in the mediation process.

(Reporting by Terje Solsvik, Gwladys Fouche and Poppy McPherson; Editing by Robert Birsel and Elaine Hardcastle)