Myanmar crackdown forces businesses to make stark choice

 Myanmar crackdown forces businesses to make stark choice

Business groups linked to Min Aung Hlaing’s junta are bearing the brunt of a consumer and employee boycott that is forcing foreign and local enterprises to take sides.

Since Myanmar’s military seized power last month, boycott movements against brands such as Myanmar beer, made by an army-backed company in partnership with Japan’s Kirin, have proliferated, with some supermarkets, hotels and corner shops refusing to sell those products. 

“We don’t sell any beer produced by the military or any of its joint venture partners,” said Thaw Zin, who runs a rooftop restaurant in the city, and gave only a portion of his full name because of the risk involved.

“We won’t purchase or sell products with any military money because we don’t want to be an accessory to a murderous regime.”

Police and troops launched a violent crackdown against the protests over the past week, killing at least 50 people nationwide and bringing smoke and the sound of gunfire to Yangon, the business capital.

Even before the boycott, companies were struggling with the economic disruption caused by the protest movement, which has prompted tens of thousands of civil servants and private sector workers to walk off their jobs, paralysing the banking system. 

As the conflict draws ever sharper lines within society, businesses are confronting tough choices on how to communicate their positions and, for some foreign concerns, whether to stay in the country at all.

“Any company operating in Myanmar will have to ask whether it makes sense for them to be there, and what kind of risks they face, including human rights risk,” said Romain Caillaud, a Tokyo-based risk and reputation consultant formerly based in Myanmar.

“And they will have to look at where their local partners sit in this evolving political context, and whether they are fully aligning themselves with the State Administrative Council [junta] or with the protesters, or are putting themselves in between.” 

The Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the country’s main business lobby group, faced a backlash and calls for a boycott last month after its senior members met Min Aung Hlaing two days after the coup.

The chamber defended itself against accusations that its secretariat forced employees who supported a general strike back to work before closing its headquarters until further notice.

Some of Myanmar’s biggest local and foreign investors recently signed a public statement that appeared to tread a delicate line between supporting peaceful protest and calling for a cooling of the conflict disrupting business. 

A protester drags a branch to block a road during a demonstration in Naypyidaw
A protester drags a branch to block a road during a demonstration in Naypyidaw © AFP via Getty Images

The signatories, including shipping line Maersk, Coca-Cola, ENI, Total and telecoms groups Ooredoo and Telenor, said they had watched “with growing and deep concern” developments since the coup, and hoped to a “swift resolution of the current situation based on dialogue and reconciliation in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar”. 

Last week the American and European Chambers of Commerce in Myanmar and the Italy Myanmar Business Association issued a blunter statement saying that they had been invited to meet representatives of the military government, but had “declined all invitations”. The chambers’ French and British counterparts said they “endorsed” the message.

International rights organisations had been pressuring Myanmar and foreign companies to cut ties with military-backed groups in recent years because of the Tatmadaw’s violent campaign against Rohingya Muslims and other minorities. The overthrow of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government appears to have focused companies’ minds. 

“The commercial prospects for businesses will depend heavily on their approach to the new regime,” said Jared Bissinger, a development economist focused on Myanmar. “The risk of boycotts or losing international clients is now much greater for businesses with a military connection.”

Kirin, one of international campaigners’ main targets because of its beer joint ventures with military-backed Myanmar Economic Holdings, said it would withdraw from the partnerships the same week as the coup. 

After the coup, multinationals’ actions are now under greater scrutiny, even if they have no direct partnerships with the junta.

Justice for Myanmar, a campaign group pressuring businesses to isolate the military, has warned that foreign investors in Myanmar’s oil and gas sector, which include Chevron, Total and Posco, risk bankrolling the new junta because it now controls the state-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise. 

Protesters said they were watching what companies did next. 

“No one who wants democracy should buy military-owned products or services. We hope the business community could also join the boycott of military firms, decline to work with the junta and stop paying tax,” said Danny, a 28-year-old protester in Yangon.

“We may, one day, forgive cronies and businessmen who support the junta, but we won’t easily forget what they have enabled.”

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