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(Washington, DC, January 23, 2014) – On January 21, 2014, 61 Burmese and ethnic civil society organizations sent detailed comments to the World Bank expressing their concerns about the Bank’s Telecom Sector Reform project. The project supports growth in telecom capacity and infrastructure in Burma, but the World Bank has failed to support fundamental risk assessments, safeguards, and legal reforms that must precede telecom expansion. The World Bank has also failed to host meaningful civil society consultations; instead, the Bank alleged it had received “broad support” from civil society for the project before the Bank had released project details or hosted even one consultation.

The civil society comments primarily urged the World Bank to 1) hold transparent and comprehensive civil society consultations before moving forward with the project, 2) prioritize risk assessments and reforms to Burma’s legal and regulatory framework to ensure that telecom infrastructure will not enable the government to violate people’s rights to privacy and freedom of expression, and 3) upgrade the project to category A status to provide necessary safeguards for affected peoples.

The World Bank’s failure to promote privacy and security reform in Burma while expanding telecom capacity will enable the Burmese government to further engage in surveillance, censorship, and other abuses. Alarmingly, the Bank is ignoring these basic concerns in the face of a powerful and mounting international consensus recognizing the right to privacy and online protections against intrusive state actions. The UN General Assembly and international experts have urged states to responsibly regulate telecommunications as “[t]echnological changes have concurrently increased opportunities for State surveillance and interventions into individuals’ private communications.”[1]

“It is essential that the World Bank address matters of privacy and security before moving forward with the Telecom Sector Reform Project,” said US Campaign for Burma (USCB) Campaigns Director Rachel Wagley. “The Burmese government will be further empowered to conduct censorship and surveillance and violate rights to privacy and expression if the government is given increased access to telecom capacity without being held accountable to enact a corresponding international-standard legal and regulatory framework.”

Civil society organizations urged the World Bank to press the Burmese government to repeal laws that restrict people from exercising their freedoms and to develop laws and regulations to control how the government and service operators are able to collect, process, and share data in line with international human rights standards. “The lack of legal safeguards in Burma gives people great reason to be cautious about their personal data,” reads the civil society comment. “Burmese law and practice does not protect users from unwarranted security agency surveillance or collection of personal data, and the government may seek to enlist state-owned Myanmar Post and Telecommunications (MPT) or new private operators in such abuses without appropriate safeguards for rights.”

Civil society organizations in addition pressed the World Bank to conduct privacy and security risk assessments prior to project implementation; commit to conducting human rights assessments of the project’s public and private partners; ensure that partners commit to draft and publish human rights policies and procedures; establish an accessible grievance mechanism; and take comprehensive precautions regarding the project’s land, labor, and environmental impacts.

The organizations also critiqued the World Bank for hastily scheduling civil society consultations without providing people with enough time to translate and review project documents. Organizations expressed dismay that the Bank had deceptively claimed to receive broad support for the telecom project before civil society had even been informed about project details, and that the Bank had not made project information readily accessible to all those involved.

“It should be standard practice for the World Bank to hold scheduled, meaningful consultations and to ensure that civil society organizations have sufficient time to review and translate all proposals,” said USCB Campaigns Director Wagley. “The World Bank should respect those in Burma advocating for a legal and regulatory framework that meets international human rights standards. Such a framework would ensure that the Telecom Sector Reform project is an agent of access and progress, rather than an agent of censorship and rights violations.”

Please find the full text of the civil society comments attached to this announcement.

Media Contact: Jennifer Quigley at (202) 234-8022

Click to view Press Release PDF
Click to view Civil Society Comments to World Bank
Click to view Civil Society Letter to World Bank Board

[1] A/HRC/23/40, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, Apr. 17, 2013, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session23/A.HRC.23.40_EN.pdf.

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