(un-official English translation from the original Norwegian news report – https://bistandsaktuelt.no/nyheter/2019/rohingya-klage-telenor/)
Letter from the world’s largest refugee camp: Requires investigation by Telenor
From the huge Kutapalong camp in Bangladesh now comes accusations that the Norwegian telecommunications giant has broken the prudence of developing infrastructure in a conflict area in Myanmar. “From Telenor’s mobile mast, the soldiers killed people who fled,” says Tin Soe.
This week, the Norwegian authorities received a letter stating serious charges against one of Norway’s largest companies. The letter to the Norwegian Contact Point for Responsible Businessclaims that Myanmar’s security forces used Telenor infrastructure to attack the Rohingya minority in the village of Alethankyaw.
The rights group Committee Seeking Justice for Alethankyaw (CSJA), which has signed the letter, claims that Telenor has breached the OECD’s guidelines for multinational companies by expanding telecommunications infrastructure in a conflict area. The letter also states that the mobile giant’s mobile mast was used “when Burmese security forces carried out crimes against humanity against an unarmed civilian population” in the fishing village west of Myanmar in August 2017.
Since Telenor has been active in Myanmar since 2013, top management may not have been unaware of the long-standing apartheid-like policy against the Rohingya community, CSJA spokesman Ramat Ullah told Kaladan Press Network.
Telenor says to the Assistance News that the company has conducted internal investigations, “which confirmed that we were not involved in the events”. At the same time, the company’s communications director points out that Telenor “must follow the OECD process rules” and that it is therefore inappropriate to comment on the charges at this time.
Since Burmese security forces launched their offensive in the fall of 2017, 742,000 Rohingya have arrived in what is often referred to as the world’s largest refugee camp. No one knows exactly how many are in the areas between Cox´s Bazar and the border with Myanmar, but according to (UNHCR) more than a million people have fled Myanmar in the last decades.
It has not been possible to reach anyone in the SJA committee, but the letter demanding an investigation of Telenor has been sent from the Kutapalong camp in Bangladesh.
Sniper in mobile mast
In the report “The Killing Fields of Alethankyaw“, published by the Kaladan Press Network in November 2018, it was first claimed that a Telenormast in the fishing village was used by snipers. The claim was then made in a UN report from March this year, and now the charges have thus formally reached the Norwegian authorities. The UN report states that the soldiers were deployed to Alethankyaw in the days before August 25, 2017:
“On August 25, these troops killed at least fifty men, women and children. The next day, snipers were placed on rooftops, an MPT tower and a Telenor tower, and shot villagers as they fled. The dead bodies are said to have been collected in wells and under the Telenor tower. The village was then burned (…). The alleged use of snipers in mobile masts clarifies the importance of human rights and prudence principles from companies and investors, ”the report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights (OHCHR) states .
“These people need justice. Now,” Tin Soe says to Assistance News.
He is a Rohingya himself and fled Myanmar in 1982, when the country was called Burma and was ruled by a military junta. He is now editor-in-chief of Kaladan Press Network, which is behind the Killing Fields report.
“We started Kaladan in 2001 because no Burmese media wanted to write about the discriminatory policies of the Burmese authorities against the Rohingya,” Tin Soe said on the phone from Chittagong in Bangladesh.
The media actor he leads is part of Burma News International, an association of 16 media houses with the goal of strengthening journalism about – and voting from – areas of ethnic minorities in Myanmar.
With the Killing-fields report, Kaladan has succeeded in this:
Only Buddhists again
Tin Soe spent two months in the camps in Bangladesh to hear the stories of some of those who escaped the Burmese forces’ bullets as they fled Alethankyaw one August day in 2017. The report, based on in-depth interviews with thirty refugee refugees – including fishermen, farmers, housewives and teachers – describe in detail how the military planned and carried out abuses against the Rohingya minority.
The editor says the situation in the camps in Bangladesh is now precarious.
In the Kutapalong camp alone, half a million people now live close by. But there are 21 larger and smaller camps in and around Cox´s Bazar and the refugees must not go out to find work. Almost none of the children go to school and the health care is very sparse. People just sit there waiting to get home.
Assistance news asks if Tin Soe can communicate with CSJA spokesman Ramat Ullah. The editor explains that the committee leader does not speak English and that it is currently difficult to establish telephone contact with people in Kutapalong. He says that Ramat Ullah represents a large group of Rohingya who are now refugees.
About 11,000 people lived in and around Alethankyaw before August 2017. Apart from the 18 households where Buddhists lived, almost everyone is now on the run in Bangladesh.
But why do you think the SJA committee thinks Telenor is complicit in the abuses against the civilian population in Alethankyaw?
Snipers took the mobile mast in Alethankyaw. From the top they had a good overview of the area, and from there they killed civilians who fled. The soldiers shot them straight down, one by one. Citizens feel Telenor is an accomplice because the company built the mobile mast used by soldiers to kill civilians, says Tin Soe.
When the Killing Fields report was published, Telenor stated that the company could not be held responsible for Tatmadaw’s surrender.
The November 2018 press release states that the allegations are “disturbing”, that the company was deeply concerned by the alleged crimes, and would initiate “dialogue with relevant authorities” to express concern and seek facts about the case. The telecommunications giant also highlighted a concern about the potential illegal entry into and abuse of – the mobile mast operated by a company’s subcontractors.
The company pointed out that most of the mobile towers in Myanmar are unmanned and fenced, but that this does not prevent anyone from entering illegally. According to the company, the mobile tower in Alethankyaw was erected in 2016, ie before the operations of the Burmese security forces, but was not put into operation until 2018, ie the year after the area was “emptied” of people from the Rohingya minority.
This is what the interest organization Arakan Rohingya National Organization (ARNO) has noticed. In a press release following the Kaladan report, the organization expressed concern that Telenor would not take the charges seriously. ARNO also emphasized that Telenor had acted “opportunistically” after Burmese burghers in Rakhine vetoed Telenor’s major competitor – Ooredoo from Qatar – to offer mobile services in the Buddhist- dominated area:
“Telenor’s indifference to the Rohingya fate is made clear by the fact that they went ahead and began operating the tower in Alethankyaw in March 2018, just seven months after the slaying of the villagers. Thus, Telenor continued its business as if nothing had happened – literally on top of Rohingya’s leg remains ”.
Frode Elgesem, head of Norway’s Contact Point for Responsible Business, confirms having received the complaint from The Committee Seeking Justice for Alethankyaw (CSJA).
Yes, we have received the material the complainant has chosen to publish, says Elgesem.
The Elgesem body is a professional impartial, advisory body to promote the OECD’s guidelines for responsible business. All OECD countries have a contact point that will contribute to the implementation of the guidelines. At home, the agency will assist the Norwegian authorities in promoting the guidelines, while also providing advice and guidance and handling of individual cases.
Can contribute to solutions
Elgesem explains that he cannot comment further on the complaint at this time because of confidentiality concerns, but confirms that the agency can deal with complaints against Norwegian companies where, for example, it is alleged that the OECD’s human rights policy is not complied with.
If anyone believes that a Norwegian company has acted in violation of the OECD guidelines, we can complain to us. First, we make an initial assessment of whether the case falls within the guidelines and is suitable for a complaint with us. If the answer is yes, we will first offer the parties mediation. If this does not occur, we will provide a final statement where we discuss the allegations of non-compliance and make recommendations to the company, says Elgesem.
But can you conduct an investigation as requested by CSJA?
What will happen in this case I can not say anything, but it is true that fact-finding can be included in the processing of a complaint case. We can conduct investigations, but the strongest tool we have is to make a statement.
Elgesem says that they have made statements in previous cases.
The consequences of such statements may vary, but where we find grounds for criticism such a statement will often result in changes, for example by the company undertaking specific measures to ensure that the business is run responsibly in the future. Through dialogue and mediation, the parties also have the opportunity to enter into agreements on more comprehensive solutions, says Elgesem.
Not right to comment now
Assistance news has previously written about how the Norwegian telecommunications giant hopes to contribute to development in a country where 70 percent live in poverty – and it is undoubtedly that people in the former military dictatorship badly need the development that Telenor can contribute. But even with good control routines, the company has previously used children as a labor force and broken its own HSE regulations in Myanmar.
Assistance has wanted to get the Telenor management to speak about the charges that have now been sent to the Norwegian authorities, but the company has not wanted to interview or answer the questions sent. In an email response from Hanne Knutsen, Head of Communications at Telenor Group, states that the company has not yet officially received the complaint from the Seeking Justice Committee for Alethankyaw:
“We must follow the OECD process rules. It is therefore not right to deal with this matter in the media in parallel, ”Knudsen writes, but elaborates:
“When the Kaladan report was published, Telenor initiated internal investigations, which confirmed that we had no knowledge, or were involved in, the events mentioned in the report. Further investigations, including forensic / forensic investigations, should be carried out by Myanmar authorities.
The Head of Communications reiterates the 2018 message that Telenor has formally asked the authorities to investigate the alleged allegations:
“Telenor has requested that independent third-party organizations be involved in the investigation. In 2019, Telenor has reviewed the security of the tower areas, including an assessment of human rights risk, and upgraded the security of the areas. We continue to have dialogue with the authorities in Myanmar. In Telenor’s work, we adhere to the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Katja Nordgaard, Norway’s ambassador to Burma from 2010 to 2013, has been appointed as Executive Vice President at Telenor Group, a Norwegian firm that was awarded a license to build a telecom network in Burma last year. Read more