OSLO (Reuters) -The Norwegian government would be unable to prevent a transfer of customer data from telecoms operator Telenor's Myanmar unit to the Asian country's military rulers, Norway's industry minister said on Wednesday.
Telenor, which is majority owned by the Norwegian state, is under pressure from some institutional investors and human rights groups to ensure the personal data of its 18 million customers in Myanmar will be protected following the sale of its operations there.
Norway's industry ministry is in charge of overseeing the state's shareholding in Telenor.
"As owner of a telecoms company with a subsidiary in Myanmar we cannot prevent that metadata ends up in the hands of the military regime," Industry Minister Jan Christian Vestre told the Norwegian parliament.
Telenor is seeking to leave the country after a military coup last year, telling Reuters in September it was selling its operations to avoid European Union sanctions after "continued pressure" from the junta to activate intercept surveillance technology.
In a statement emailed to Reuters on Wednesday, Telenor said the safest way for the company to exit Myanmar was by selling its operations.
"Some players have said they understand that we have to leave the country but have asked us to close the operation and delete data, or to delete data before we transfer the business to the new owner.
"We cannot do this without exposing our employees to significant danger - it can have unacceptable consequences if we do not respond to direct orders or local law enforced by the military authorities," it said.
Myanmar's military junta did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
The country's military rulers have given the go-ahead for a local company, Shwe Byain Phyu, to own most of Telenor's business in Myanmar, under a deal to be finalised soon, Reuters reported on Friday.
Some human rights groups have said the handover could put the data of 18 million people within the junta's reach, with several demonstrations held in Myanmar in recent days calling on Telenor to stop the sale altogether.
Vestre was answering questions from two opposition lawmakers who asked how Telenor customer data would be protected, and whether the ministry had considered asking the company to put the sale on hold.
"It is not the government as an owner, but the company's board and management that must make these decisions," Vestre said.
"With this in mind we have not asked Telenor to postpone the sale," he added.
One of the two lawmakers, Ola Elvestuen, said Telenor should delete customer user data before the sale of the Myanmar business is finalised.
"It is clear that for the demonstrators, and those fighting for democracy, the most important decision would be to delete it," Elvestuen told Reuters.
The industry minister was not immediately available for further comment when approached by Reuters.
(Editing by Terje Solsvik and Carmel Crimmins)