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.

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