Myanmar’s anti-junta People’s Defense Force (PDF) militia has destroyed nearly four dozen towers operated by a military-run telecom since last week in a bid to decrease company revenue they say the regime will use to buy weapons to wield against the population.
At least 42 towers used by Mytel Telecommunications Co. to send and receive wireless signals have been damaged since Sept. 4 in Myanmar’s Mandalay, Magway, and Sagaing regions, as well as in southern Shan state’s Phekon township, according to residents and data compiled by RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Of the 42 towers, 35 are solely operated by Mytel, two are jointly operated by Mytel and other operators, and five are owned by Qatar’s Ooredoo and Norway’s Telenor, but used by Mytel. At least 31 towers were destroyed by PDF units in Sagaing region alone, residents said.
Boh Nagar of the Pale Township PDF in Sagaing’s Yinmabin district told RFA Friday that the towers were targeted to halt the flow of cash from Mytel to the junta, which he said could be used to purchase weapons for killing civilians.
“They were blown up mainly because they were businesses run by [junta leader] Min Aung Hlaing’s family. They are earning revenue from phone bills,” he said.
“Their family business is one that ‘waters the poisonous and thorny plants’ that only hurt the people. We destroyed them because we don’t want income from these businesses used to buy bullets.”
Mytel is 49 percent owned by Viettel, a company under the control of Vietnam’s military, while 28 percent of the remaining shares are held by the Myanmar military’s Myanmar Economic Corporation and 23 percent by Myanmar National Telecoms Holdings Public Company Ltd.
PDF sources told RFA that several Mytel towers had been destroyed since Sept. 7, when Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG) declared a nationwide state of emergency and called for open rebellion against junta rule, prompting an escalation of attacks on military targets by various allied pro-democracy militias and ethnic armed groups.
As many as 11 towers were destroyed on Sept. 7 alone in Sagaing’s Butalin township, they said.
A resident of Butalin said military units arrived at the scene shortly after a tower bombing on Thursday and “opened fire blindly” near a major road junction.
“Several soldiers came to the scene of the destroyed tower at the Phone Gyi Road junction and opened fire seven or eight times to scare people nearby,” the resident said.
“Around 11 towers, including the one near Okpo village, were destroyed in a single day.”
Locals said that Mytel phone lines were disrupted after the towers were felled, but internet connections were unaffected.
Ties to military
A resident of Sagaing who works for a private telecommunications company told RFA on condition of anonymity that while it is Mytel towers that are being targeted at present, the loss of other communication infrastructure could hurt the region.
“Power generators used at some of these towers were shared by other operators,” the resident said.
“When such towers are blown up, not only Mytel connections, but all connections can be disrupted. Some towers control more than a dozen smaller towers nearby.”
The resident noted that Mytel often establishes towers in monastery compounds and garrisons to provide an extra layer of safety for its infrastructure.
“Nobody, not even engineers or company employees, would want to go near the destroyed towers and there would be delays for repairs,” he said.
The military-run Myawaddy newspaper reported on Sept. 5 that security forces were working to investigate and take legal action against those who had disrupted communications networks that are “helping to improve the lives of civilians.”
Myanmar’s newest mobile operator established in 2018, Mytel provides the military with vast off-budget revenue and a means to access international communications technology, the group Justice for Myanmar said in a report released in December 2020.
Mytel has more than 10 million subscribers in the country of 54 million people and quarterly profits reported to be U.S. $25 million, the report says.
Khin Thiri Thet Mon, the daughter of junta leader Min Aung Hlaing, was a shareholder in Pinnacle Asia, a company that built towers for Mytel, when her father led a coup and seized power from Myanmar’s democratically elected government on Feb. 1, according to Justice for Myanmar.
She resigned from the company on March 17, days after the U.S. government imposed sanctions against her over the military’s attacks on unarmed civilians.
Attempts by RFA to contact representatives of Mytel at the company’s headquarters in Yangon went unanswered Friday.
The focus is ‘to eliminate’
In the seven months since the coup, security forces have killed 1,062 civilians and arrested at least 6,364, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP)—mostly during crackdowns on anti-junta protests.
The junta says it unseated Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government because the party engineered a landslide victory in Myanmar’s November 2020 election through widespread voter fraud. It has yet to present evidence of its claims and public unrest is at an all-time high.
Amid nationwide turmoil, the military has stepped up offensives in remote parts of the country, triggering fierce battles with local PDF militias and some of the dozens of ethnic armies that control large swathes of territory along Myanmar’s periphery.
At least 443 armed clashes broke out between the military and ethnic armies or PDF militias in August alone, the NUG’s Ministry of Defense said in a statement earlier this week. Sagaing region had the highest number of clashes last month with 106, it said.
Dr. Naing Swe Oo, a former military officer and executive director of the Yangon-based Thayninga Institute of Strategic Studies, a pro-military think tank, told RFA on Friday that the numbers listed in the NUG statement are “unreliable” and likely overstated, but warned of more bloodshed following the shadow government’s Sept. 7 declaration of war.
Speaking to RFA, political analyst Maung Maung Soe noted that the international community is “pushing for a dialogue” between the two sides.
“They say they don’t want to see an escalation of the armed conflict in Myanmar, but the situation at home is very tense,” he said.
“The focus on both sides is to eliminate the other and there can be no negotiations now.”
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