Market Morality: Telenor’s Silence Alienating Consumers

For Norwegian translation see below.

Telenor, I am sure Digi is a good service, consumers in Malaysia could probably benefit from it; but you have to appeal to this market through the issues that matter to the consumers, and you have to adopt the values they share; otherwise it doesn’t matter how great your service is, customers will abandon you; as they have been doing for months now.

The #WeAreAllRohingyaNow Campaign is not your enemy. We don’t want to see Telenor fail, as it is failing. But your silence on the Rohingya genocide is starting to look less and less like mere apathy, and more and more like collusion with the bigots and extremists among the government, military, and radical nationalists.

Your recent educational initiative based in monastic schools, excluding the Rohingya, is not the positive PR you hoped it would be; on the contrary, it makes your company appear to be fully aligned with the prejudice and discrimination that is tearing Arakan apart, making day to day life dangerous and miserable for religious minorities like the Rohingya, and undermining even the possibility of reconciliation and peace.

You have to understand that this has a massive impact on the attractiveness of your brand to regional consumers. And it will only get worse the longer you stay silent. Customers have choices, and they are increasingly making their choices on the basis of how companies behave, not just on the quality and cost of the goods and services they provide.

Telenor needs to get ahead of the curve and adapt to this new dynamic in consumer decision-making. It is no longer possible for companies to stay aloof from politics; the market rule of supply and demand is starting to include demand for the moral exercise of corporate power. We want more from you than what you manufacture or provide.

Moral i markedet, Telenors stillhet gjør at kundegrupper tar avstand fra dem

Telenor, jeg er sikker på at Digi er en god tjeneste, forbrukere i Malaysia kunne nok ha nytte av den; Men du må appellere til dette markedet gjennom problemene som er viktige for forbrukerne, og du må adoptere verdiene de deler; Ellers spiller det ingen rolle hvor bra din tjeneste er, kundene vil forlate deg; Som de har gjort i flere måneder nå. -kampanjen er ikke din fiende. Vi ønsker ikke å se Telenor mislykkes. Men stillheten deres angående folkemordet i Rohingya begynner å se mindre og mindre ut som bare apati, og mer og mer som samspill med de fordumsfulle og ekstremister i regjeringen, militæret og radikale nasjonalister. Ditt siste pedagogiske initiativ basert på klosterskoler, ekskluderer Rohingyaene, og er ikke det positive PR dere håpet det ville være; Tvert imot ser det ut til at firmaet ser ut til å være helt i samsvar med fordommer og diskriminering som slår Arakan fra hverandre, noe som gjør livet til livsfarlig og elendig for religiøse minoriteter som Rohingya, og undergraver selv muligheten for forsoning og fred. Du må forstå at dette har en stor innvirkning på merkevarenes attraktivitet for regionale forbrukere. Og det blir bare verre jo lengre du blir stille. Kunder har valg, og de gjør i økende grad sine valg på grunnlag av hvordan bedrifter oppfører seg, ikke bare på kvaliteten og kostnaden av de varer og tjenester de tilbyr. Telenor trenger å komme i forkant avutviklingen og tilpasse seg denne nye dynamikken i beslutningsprosesser for forbrukerne. Det er ikke lenger mulig for bedrifter å holde seg utenfor politikken; Markedsregelen for tilbud og etterspørsel begynner å inkludere etterspørsel etter den moralske utøvelsen av bedriftskraft. Vi vil ha mer fra dere enn det dere produserer eller tilbyr.

Telenor’s Failing Strategy of Silence

The #WeAreAllRohingyaNow Campaign has been reaching out to Norwegian telecom company Telenor for several weeks now, encouraging them to stand with companies like Unilever against the ongoing genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, and to support the implementation of United Nations recommendations, including the restoration of Rohingya citizenship.

Telenor has invested over a billion and a half dollars in Myanmar and has more than 80,000 points of sale across the country, with plans for further expansion.  They are a company with considerable influence in Myanmar.

Telenor has publicly supported UN goals on reducing inequality and they promote an image of themselves as a “socially responsible” and culturally sensitive company. However, direct correspondence with Telenor CEO Sigve Brekke has gone unanswered, social media activists have been temporarily blocked from executives’ Twitter accounts, and even though the Telenor hashtag is now dominated by messages encouraging the company to take a moral stand against the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, and these messages experience far greater interaction than anything posted by Telenor themselves, the company remains unresponsive.

It appears that their marketing department believes all they have to do to win customers in the region is to regularly tweet about cricket matches and announce special promotions; but that they do not have to extricate themselves from the growing perception that they are a company complicit in the crimes being committed against the Rohingya by the Myanmar government on a daily basis.

But a company cannot claim to be socially responsible while simultaneously being unresponsive to the concerns of the society.  We have been urging Telenor to understand that consumers in the Southeast Asian region care deeply about the Rohingya issue, and that their market choices are going to reflect this concern.  Silence in the face of genocide is not only immoral; it is an extremely bad business strategy in a region where the public cares about the issue.

Telenor’s most recent quarterly report substantiates this.  Subscribers in Malaysia for Telenor’s Digi service have been switching to other providers by the hundreds of thousands.  The company’s profits in Malaysia have fallen nearly $100 million below projections.  Stock traders have downgraded the value of Telenor’s  appeal and are anticipating turbulence in the company’s share price.  This is partly due to European Commission allegations that Telenor is guilty of anti-competition practices, but of course, it is also due to the dramatic deterioration of their market share in this region and their subsequent failure to meet profit goals.

Telenor’s silence on the Rohingya genocide is stigmatizing the company in Southeast Asia.  This is the Catch-22 situation for any company that has chosen to use Myanmar as a launching platform for penetrating the regional market.  They invest in Myanmar so they can access customers in the region, but by being in Myanmar, they are alienating those customers, because of the actions of the government.  The only solution to this Catch-22 conundrum, the only way they can make their investments in Myanmar pay off, is if they decide to use the leverage their investments give them to press for a political resolution to the issue.  There is nothing Telenor could possibly do that would win them more customer loyalty and appreciation in the region than this.

The #WeAreAllRohingyaNow Campaign has no animosity towards Telenor or any other multinational corporation invested in Myanmar; and we want to see them succeed.  They can improve the quality of goods and services, create jobs, and enhance the standard of living for the whole population.   But, in order for that to actually happen, it simply cannot be at the expense of the lives of over a million innocent Rohingya.  If Telenor embraces the values held by consumers in this region, consumers in this region will embrace Telenor.  If they ignore our concerns, the market will continue to turn away from them.

It is that simple.

Telenor’s PR Quagmire

The #WeAreAllRohingyaNow Campaign has been reaching out to Norwegian telecom company Telenor for several weeks.  Their Twitter and Facebook hashtags are now dominated by messages from human rights activists calling upon them to take a public stand to support the Rohingya, and no tweets on the #telenor hashtag experience interaction more than these.  At one point, Telenor’s Head of Sustainability, which falls under the section of Social Responsibility, actually blocked social media activists from her account; not exactly the best way to express respect for public concerns.

The company is descending into a PR pit both internationally and domestically.  Aside from the growing negative sentiment over the Telenor’s silence on the Rohingya issue, Telenor is facing an investigation into its corporate policies. The European Commission raided Telenor’s office in Sweden amidst accusations of anti-competitive practices.  Telenor has responded by pointing fingers at Swedish telecoms.  The company appears to have a somewhat dysfunctional PR approach to handling controversy.

Whoever is advising Telenor on its marketing strategy is severely miscalculating the gravity of the Rohingya issue.  We are not talking about a labour dispute; we are not talking about a complaint about where a mobile phone tower is being built.  We are talking about the systematic, brutal ethnic cleansing of an entire population, that has been meticulously documented, reported by the international press, and spurred numerous United Nations investigations, resolutions, and investigations.  Myanmar is ranked the third highest risk country in the world for erupting into a full-blown genocide; and Telenor is burying its head in the sand.  Instead of addressing the serious concerns of the consumers in the Southeast Asian market, they are tweeting about cricket matches.  “Asians love cricket, let’s show we are culturally aware”…can you get any more dismissive and obnoxious than that?  Do Telenor executives really think this is a good PR approach?  Is the marketing department being run by first year interns?

Just within the past couple weeks, reports continue to flood in about the deliberate use of sexual violence, gang rape, mutilation, murder of men, women, children, infants and the elderly, by the Myanmar security forces; Nazi flags were being waved on the traditional new year, arbitrary detentions occur daily, Buddhist extremists set fire to a mosque with protection by the police; Arakan state is deteriorating into a hellish chaos of violence, hatred, terror, and radicalism, all with active state coordination, in a country where Telenor has invested over a billion and a half dollars and wields significant influence.

Every day that they choose to ignore the atrocities and the pleas of activists from across the region to take a stand, they are in fact taking a stand in support of genocide by their approving silence.

Will Ooredoo, the Qatar-based telecom be as complacent about the slaughter of their fellow Muslims, and be as dismissive about the sympathetic sentiments of the region? Telenor needs to consider that they have a limited window of opportunity to take the lead in adopting a moral position on the Rohingya issue before they lose the market, their reputation, and earn the contempt of history for their indifference.

In Pursuit of Long-term Victory

In the real world, most opponents in a fight are mismatched; the powerful against the powerless. Therefore, you should not engage them on their terms, but on yours. Fight them according to their weaknesses, not their strengths. And, of course, do whatever you can to gain leverage to amplify whatever strength you have.

This is the basic concept behind the strategy of the #WeAreAllRohingyaNow Campaign. The weak point for the Myanmar government is the economy; their need for foreign investment and development; and it is through multinational corporations that we can leverage the strength we have to ultimately bring an end to the genocide and to restore the citizenship of the Rohingya. We do not have the power to go toe-to-toe with the Myanmar army, or the government (and indeed, this would also mean going to-to-toe with most of the population); that is a losing strategy. Corporations have the power to do this, however, and we do have power over corporations; if we choose to use it.

Some have asked “what are you going to do if companies refuse to comply with your demands? Are you going to do more than merely ‘tease’ them periodically on social media?”

Well, first of all, it has to be understood that companies spend a considerable amount of money to promote their images on social media. This has become an essential element in their overall business strategy, and it can literally affect their share values if investors perceive that a company is facing any potential public backlash. So, “teasing” is a naively dismissive word for social media campaigning.

As we have stated previously during our outreach to Unilever, #WeAreAllRohingyaNow is adhering to a long-term, multi-stage strategy. We are committed to keeping our campaigns positive and constructive. We fully believe that taking a moral stand against the Rohingya genocide is truly the best thing any company can do, both in the region, and globally, for their own business interests, and we sincerely want to help companies realise this.

We have cultivated, are cultivating, and are in the process of organising grassroots support among regional consumers, as well as among international activists and organisations; and we have the capacity to escalate our outreach with organised consumer activity, either through purchasing or suspension of purchasing campaigns; and we do not rule out mobilising direct action if or when it becomes necessary.

The first stage of this effort is the recruitment of public support from major multinationals (ideally, those with significant investments in Myanmar and the region); this will have a ripple effect throughout the international business community, media coverage, public perceptions of the , and influence even the policies of state actors. From that point, we can move to a more proactive campaign, once the issue has the public backing of major institutions of private power; and we have plans in place for this.

We ask all those who are concerned about the plight of the Rohingya to lend their support to this gradual, but insha’Allah, effective strategy, and to persevere patiently and persistently to ensure that each stage of the campaign will be successful. The more people participate, the faster we can get results.

The Usefulness of Conflict

Recently I had a conversation with a renowned expert in humanitarian relief and conflict resolution regarding ethnic cleansing in Myanmar against the Rohingya Muslims, and I expressed my concerns that the US might potentially back the fledgling militant group “The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army” (ARSA). She disagreed, saying that the US had been very supportive of the Rohingya; they had welcomed refugees (before Trump), and had convened a Security Council meeting at the United Nations on the issue, facilitated relief work, and so on. What was interesting to me about this was that she believed these actions by the US precluded the likelihood of American covert support for ARSA, whereas I do not see the slightest contradiction between US expressions of concern for the plight of the Rohingya and their simultaneous exacerbation of that plight. But then again, I am American. The US does that kind of thing all the time.

The US, let’s be clear, promotes democratic facades, not democracy. When the façade is flimsy, they criticize, and offer dictatorial regimes the necessary marketing strategies to obscure their authoritarian tendencies. Hold elections; talk about “transitions to democracy”, cultivating pluralism, and so on. Meanwhile, they will simultaneously facilitate the intensification of repression. Remember, American foreign policy is exclusively dedicated to securing the perceived “national interests”, and this translates to the interests of business. No regime is better suited for doing that than an authoritarian one; preferably a corrupt military government. The ideal situation is for any country to be ruled by an unscrupulous group of local elites who are ready and willing to collaborate with global elites to deliver their country’s resources in exchange for a percentage and a guarantee of immunity.

One of the best mechanisms for camouflaging the fact that a client regime is tyrannical and not even slightly interested in democratic reforms (which no one in power really wants anyway), is the creation of, or the encouragement of, internal conflict. A military government can then impose brutal crackdowns in the name of securing peace and tranquility; while the actual objectives are the subjugation of popular dissent, the prevention of democracy, and the ruthless protection of vital business interests for themselves and their global sponsors. It is understood that the sponsors will occasionally reprimand the regime for particularly egregious atrocities, but these reprimands will be hollow, and the regime is allowed to ignore them. In fact, they are essentially part of the mechanism required to enable the regime to continue, as they serve to abate any public pressure on the international community to actively intervene. They are permissive condemnations, and everyone involved understands this.

In Myanmar, the central government’s real problem is the Rakhine, not the Rohingya. The Rakhine are an ethnic minority living in a resource-rich, and strategically important state, who have a history of secessionist ambitions. They are oppressed, exploited, and impoverished, and if they rose against the government, it would be a lethal blow to the Burmese. As long as their resentment and hostility are directed against the helpless Rohingya, the regime is secure. Internal conflict in Arakan, therefore, is useful to everyone who matters. The Rohingya, however, may need to be slightly less helpless in order for this conflict to be sustainable. Hence, it is entirely possible that the US will covertly, with the help of conduits in the Gulf States, try to foster a semi-viable militant movement in Arakan; and probably is already doing so. And this is entirely for the purpose of supporting the central government, increasing US ties to the Burmese military, and previous expressions of support for the Rohingya do not contradict with this strategy at all, but rather align with it.