On February 20, when the protests against a military coup in Burma reached hundreds of thousands of people across the country, police in Mandalay City opened fire on the protesters.
Security forces and police shot and killed two people and injured 40 people here. Thus, as of February 20, three people had died during a demonstration protesting the military regime that overthrew the elected government. Among those killed was a 20-year-old girl who was shot in the head during a protest.
Many democratic countries quickly condemned the Burmese army for such human rights abuses.
Human rights organizations and activists have also vigorously reiterated calls to boycott the Burmese army and their financial resources – including Viettel, the telecom business of Vietnam’s Ministry of Defense.
Justice for Myanmar in late December announced its conclusions in an investigative report, accusing Viettel of assisting Burmese human rights offenders by investing in businesses of the Burmese army. Viettel is the largest shareholder with a 49% stake in telecommunications company Mytel, which is run by the Burmese military.
Justice for Myanmar spokesman Yadanar Maung told Radio Free Asia via email:
“Our report raised awareness of the serious dangers Myanmar people face from Viettel’s business with the Myanmar military. Their cooperation has provided an important source of income, access to foreign technology, weapons, and an extensive surveillance apparatus that the Burmese military can apply to its citizens. Mytel was set up by the Burmese Ministry of Communications and is controlled by the Burmese military for the share of the government, depriving the people of the revenue. These stolen assets must be returned. Sadly, the government took no action against Mytel prior to the illegal military coup that took place on February 1.”
Human rights abuses, the corrupt activities condemned by Justice for Myanmar have been going on for years under the military government, but with the February 1 coup, when the Burmese army overthrew the government of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and her National Coalition for Democracy (NLD), calls for international sanctions or embargoes on the military government have resurfaced.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) Asia, told Radio Free Asia about the latest human rights violations:
“Since the military coup that took place on February 1, we have not only seen the destruction of a democratic system. Denying a government the people of Myanmar voted for in November 2020 is itself an abuse of human rights. Then we also witnessed the arbitrary arrests and detention of a wide range of people, including high-ranking government officials, NGO members, activists, teachers, doctors, and more. More than 600 people have been detained. Many people are being held innocent in secret places. They are facing military repression and could end up in prison for many years depending on what they are ultimately accused of. We also witnessed the use of excessive and lethal force, including the murder of a woman in Naypyidaw two weeks ago and the murder of two people including a 16-year-old boy, last Saturday in Mandalay.”
Human Rights Watch, together with nearly 137 fighting and non-governmental organizations, on February 24 sent a letter to the UN Security Council calling for a global arms embargo against Burma.
According to Robertson, the embargo called by the co-signing organizations will affect Viettel because it includes dual-use goods such as means of transport, communication equipment, surveillance, and intelligence information that Viettel is currently in supply to the Burmese army. However, Mr. Robertson admitted that this is not easy to do because some countries such as China, Russia, Israel, Turkey, and Pakistan that sell weapons to Burma will oppose the embargo proposal.
Dr. Nguyen Tri Hieu, a financial expert from Vietnam, shared with Radio Free Asia on February 24 that the issue of human rights violations has not been independently investigated. He argued:
“Such allegations need an investigative agency. The United Nations may accuse Viettel of providing military-related equipment or assistance to Myanmar’s military. But all such allegations require investigation. So if there is no such investigation, there are no investigation results of an independent agency, it cannot be said that Viettel is really supporting the human rights violation.”
Viettel started investing in Mytel in mid-2018 and in just two years has become one of the two largest operators in Burma with more than 10 million subscribers.
The Justice for Myanmar report states:
“Justice For Myanmar has found disturbing evidence that Viettel is assisting with the modernization of the Myanmar army through technology transfer and training, to improve the military’s technical capabilities. By doing so, Viettel and the Vietnamese Ministry of Defense are contributing to military activities in Myanmar’s ethnic areas and supporting and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
For HRW’s Phil Robertson, it is not okay for a state body like the Ministry of Defense of Vietnam or Burma to reap profits per capita without access to a civilian government. He said:
“I think Viettel is a prime example of the Vietnamese military using its influence to make a profit without having to bear any accountability to the people of Vietnam and to the civil government. The notion that the military can run companies for profit is a terrible concept. Who are they making money for? For generals? Who are they making money for? Apparently, that money was not returned to the people.”
Radio Free Asia has also repeatedly contacted Viettel and Mytel about the above allegations without receiving an answer. Justice for Myanmar Spokesman Yadanar Maung said the organization had also received no response to the conclusion of its investigation. But, their appeal to boycott Mytel was met by many.
Two months after the report was released, he said:
“There was an impact. Mytel has taken down their Facebook page because they are constantly being reported. This affects their revenue in a market where Facebook is hugely popular. Many employees of Mytel and Viettel’s subsidiary in Myanmar have resigned and many small businesses are removing Mytel sim cards from their stores. The people of Myanmar are increasingly aware that Mytel supports the atrocities committed by the military against the people of Myanmar and that these businesses are part of the rampant military corruption.”
The telecommunications network in Burma over the years has been more liberal and has provided information access to its residents, but the Burmese spokesperson agrees with Phil Robertson’s statements on issues in the cooperation between Mytel and Viettel. Justice for Myanmar says people have a choice:
“There are two private mobile networks in Burma that do not do business with the military. There’s no reason for the military to run a telecommunications network or any business. That is not the role of the military in a democratic country … ”