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Investigative documentary digs into Alcatel’s involvement in Burma

Text by Apoorva PRASAD

Latest update : 2010-03-27

A new French documentary highlights a massive communications project run by telecom giant Alcatel-Lucent in Burma that could help the country’s ruling junta to spy on citizens.

French investigative journalist Paul Moreira’s latest documentary, ‘Burma: Resistance, Business and Nuclear Secrets’ focuses on the “secret” business dealings of Burma’s military junta with reputed multinational companies, despite international sanctions.

Moreira told FRANCE 24 that much of his investigation revolved around the presence of Franco-American telecom giant Alcatel-Lucent, which he found was involved in the construction of a digital communications network, sidestepping various international and UN sanctions.

According to the French journalist, the new network would allow Burma's military rulers to spy on citizens, journalists, bloggers and the democratic opposition.

“They are building a communications network for the generals,” said Moreira. “It’s an ISP [Internet Service Provider] for military use, to be then imposed on the rest of the country for civilian use”.

Moreira spent six months making the documentary, including two weeks in Burma, where he discovered that Burmese officials referred to Alcatel’s project as “security guaranteed”. This, he says, means “enhanced [government] control over communications” including images, blogs, videos as well as documents being leaked to the long-oppressed democratic opposition.

“Bloggers and journalists have been arrested by the dozen in Burma. Someone or something gave them away,” he said.

'Lawful Intercept'

Moreira says Alcatel may have provided the junta with a technology called “Lawful Intercept”, which is essentially a switch that allows authorities to listen in on or read what people are saying or writing on any digital communications network.

“Alcatel has given it to the Chinese. Did the Chinese give it to the Burmese? The Chinese said no… I’m not convinced,” says Moreira. “But I cannot prove it."

in response to FRANCE 24’s query as to the availability of LI technology to Burma’s junta, Alcatel-Lucent spokesperson Alix Cavallari said it "did not deliver any system for filtering communications in Myanmar".

Ambiguous operations

“No-one was quite sure what they were doing there,” Moreira said of Alcatel employees working in the country. “Usually they’re very transparent, but on their website, there was no mention [of the project].

“Even in Burma, there was a big zone of uncertainty. Their office was hidden in a hotel used by the military to conduct business.”

In response to emails sent by FRANCE 24, spokesperson Cavallari said that Alcatel’s work in Burma followed a Chinese-funded contract signed in 2006.

“Following the signature in 2006 of a contract funded by the Chinese government, Alcatel-Lucent, by way of its Chinese subsidiary Alcatel-Lucent Shanghai Bell, participated in the construction of an information highway in Myanmar,” said Cavallari.

A search performed by FRANCE 24 on Alcatel-Lucent’s website using the term “Myanmar” [the country's official name chosen by the military government] yielded only four results – none of which were related to the project in question. A search for “Burma” yielded zero results.

Murky territory of sanctions

One of the documents available on Alcatel’s website is a 2007 letter assuring Alcatel employees that US sanctions against investing in Burma do not apply to Alcatel, since it is incorporated outside the US. But the letter does specifically caution that US citizens working for the company in sanctioned countries still come under the ambit of the sanctions; meaning it would be illegal for them to work in Burma.

The EU’s ‘Common Position’ places specific sanctions against members of the junta, their families, and some companies – but it does not extend to investments in Burma by western companies.

Alcatel’s response to international concerns, according to Cavallari, is that it is aware of the situation in the country and believes that its investment in Burma will help the country's development.

Date created : 2010-03-26

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