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The MyTel-Viettel Patnership brings Hanoi closer to Naypyidaw post-coup

Viettel Group presents the “Mytel Brand Name Record for Myanmar Telecommunications Joint Venture Company” to Min Aung Hlaing. Photo courtesy of Dautu Online

By Saiwan Bum

Guest Contributor

Justice For Myanmar published a press release last June stating that Mytel was “a key pillar in the Myanmar military’s business network providing revenue, technology and surveillance capabilities.” It urged “international governments to hear the voices of Myanmar and designate [Mytel] for sanctions.” 

Four days earlier, Nguyen Tien Dung gave his first interview since he took the position of Chief Executive Officer at MyTel. The headline read: “Viettel invests into Mytel completely for the benefits of Myanmar people and nation.” 

Nguyen Tien Dung failed to mention the coup or the violence against the people in Burma since February 2021. Nevertheless, the timing of the interview and the defensive tones of the title suggested that Dung and Viettel were aware of the mounting criticism and evidence against them in supporting the military. 

Dung boasted about Mytel’s role in facilitating Burma’s digital transformation, including its assistance to the “Myanmar government” to conduct major projects such as “digital offices,” “A.I. Camera,” and “smart cities.” Most recently, he claimed in May 2022, Mytel won the bid to launch a “national digital lottery program.” 

At the end of the interview, Mr. Dung expresses Mytel’s wish to “become a pioneer company that serves the society,” and that he “hopes Myanmar nationals are better aware that [Viettel] is an international company, which invests in Myanmar completely for the benefits of the people and the country.”

In June 2022, at an annual general meeting Viettel Global’s CEO Nguyen Dat praised the development of Mytel in Myanmar, particularly the promising future of the mobile app MyID. Dat stated his ambition to turn MyID into a “Super App,” an all-in-one entertainment, communication, and digital wallet that will have additional features such as “credit rating based on consumers’ data.” This is a serious red flag on Mytel’s capacity to obtain and manage Myanmar citizens’ data. 

Mytel and its holding company, Viettel, put much effort in concealing the roles that the telecom enterprises continue to play in supporting the murderous military council of Min Aung Hlaing. This stance fuels the war against Myanmar’s people.

Until now, Viettel has stayed completely silent and has not provided any comments on how it and Mytel reacted to the military coup and the following violent conflicts. It is clear that this is a deliberate strategic decision from the management level and strictly enforced to lower ranking staff.

Viettel refused to release any statement regarding its ongoing business in Myanmar, even when Mytel was repeatedly targeted by anti-junta forces. In November 2021, it was reported that out of 409 telecom towers that were destroyed since the coup, 360 towers belonged to Mytel. On 4 November 2021, Mytel’s CFO, Thein Aung, was shot dead near his home.

Remaining silent to direct all attention and criticism toward Mytel’s business rivals proves to be a highly effective strategy, and Viettel well understood it. An interview with the Mytel CEO reports in 2020-21, “impacts from the global pandemic and political turmoil. . . forced 2 out of 4 telecom companies to divest or sell themselves. . . only Mytel was sustainable and continues to grow [sic].”

In a disturbing way, the statement is not inaccurate. Although Viettel reported a loss in 2021 due to the devaluation of its investment share in Mytel, Mytel emerged as the clear winner in the post-coup telecom market. Mytel’s continued collaboration with the junta will likely guarantee security for its infrastructure, policy making, and assistance to wipe out the competition. 

The big question is: Why has Mytel and Viettel successfully stayed silent for so long? 

Until recently, Mytel and Viettel had rarely, if ever, been seriously challenged to respond to the hard questions with regards to its continued open collaboration with the Myanmar military. Telenor, one of Mytel’s biggest rivals, was under mounting pressure from human rights groups, institutional investors, the Norwegian government, and the European Union to clarify its business conducts in Myanmar and ensure the telecom company does not provide funds or handover its user data to the military.

Telenor  Myanmar was forced to sell to Shwe Byain Phyu, whose chairperson has had a long history of business ties with the military. He was an investor in Mytel. Viettel, owned by Vietnam’s Ministry of Defence, has never had to face any ethical standards for its business operations in Myanmar.

The Vietnamese government’s emphasis on a “gradual approach without haste” to resolve the political turmoil in Myanmar continues to buy more time for firms like Viettel to continue its business-as-usual. By resorting to diplomatic phrases such as “[calling on] all stakeholders in Myanmar to immediately stop conflicts and other violent activities.” 

Hanoi refuses to publicly acknowledge the crimes of the Myanmar military, and thus implicitly gives Viettel a green light to continue its business with it. Viettel’s ongoing role to fund and enable the military to monitor citizens is highly inconsistent with Hanoi’s official line of “constructive dialogue, cooperation and trust building measures”

Almost two years since the coup, when crimes against humanity by the Myanmar military have been well-documented. Another interview with the CEO of Mytel had him admit to boosting ties with the brutal military junta set up by Min Aung Hlaing. The capacity of MyTel’s surveillance technology should be a very clear alarm for those who care about the Myanmar people and the future of the country. 

Elected members of the National Assembly of Vietnam, ASEAN, the UN, and human rights groups should insist Viettel and the government of Vietnam explain how they plan to stop assisting the Myanmar military.