Myanmar civil groups angry Lebanon PM Mikati bidding to run telecoms firm

Adviser to M1 says conglomerate has 'never compromised' on human rights issue

More than 400 Myanmar-based civil rights groups have filed a complaint against a bid by Lebanese conglomerate M1 to take over one of the largest telecoms companies in the country, citing human rights concerns.

The complaint, issued to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), came barely 24 hours after Najib Mikati, the billionaire behind the conglomerate, was nominated as prime minister-designate of Lebanon, shining new light on his track record in business as he attempts to form a government in the crisis-hit country.

Filed on behalf of the groups by the Dutch organisation the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (Somo), the complaint says the 474 rights groups have been forced to remain anonymous due to “extreme” human rights abuses being perpetrated in Myanmar.

Norwegian company Telenor announced this month it was selling its Myanmar business to Mr Mikati’s M1 conglomerate for $105 million amid human rights concerns following a military coup that occurred in the South-East Asian country in February.

That sum was a bargain, given that last year Telenor made more than $800m from its Myanmar operations.

Yet civil activists allege Telenor “irresponsibly disengaged from its Myanmar operations”, saying that the company “has failed to conduct appropriate risk-based due diligence and has failed to seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts to its customers potentially arising from the sale of its Myanmar operations".

The complaint states that Mr Mikati and his brother, Taha, have a “track record of conducting business in countries operating under authoritarian regimes”. It cites a company previously owned by the brothers called Investcom, which “operated mobile networks in Yemen, Syria, Liberia and Sudan during the Darfur genocide”.

Activists are concerned that the group may be forced to hand over data and intercepts to Myanmar’s military government. More than 9,000 people have been arrested by authorities and 900 have been killed in the clampdown that followed the coup this year.

Yet Joe Issa-El-Khoury, an adviser to M1, said that the group was being judged and treated unfairly.

“M1 has never compromised on human rights issues or unlawful interception requests with any of its operations,” he told The National.

“Why get anguished ahead of time? When things take place, M1 will decide how to react.

“If I put myself in the shoes of the Myanmar people, the choice they have is that Telenor cannot stay in. So, [it] is going to either a group which is privately owned, like M1 … because no publicly listed operator is going to go into to Myanmar. Or eventually, it will be a local group, like the authorities — so which is better for the Myanmar population?” said Mr Issa-El-Khoury.

The Mikati brothers are listed as the richest men in Lebanon, with Forbes reporting that they have a net worth of some $2.5 billion each.

Najib Mikati is a two-time former prime minister of Lebanon and he was once again nominated for the top post on Monday by Parliament following the withdrawal of Saad Hariri last week.

Updated: July 28th 2021, 8:04 AM