Myanmar crackdown forces companies to make tough choice

Business groups linked to the Min Aung Hlaing junta bear the brunt of the consumer and employee boycott that forces foreign and local businesses to take sides.

Since the Burmese military took power last month, boycott movements against brands like Burmese beer, made by a military-backed company in partnership with Japan. Make a, have proliferated, with some supermarkets, hotels and convenience stores refusing to sell these 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 part of his name. full due to the risk involved.

“We will not buy or sell products with military money because we do not want to be complicit in a murderous regime.”

Police and troops launched a violent repression against protests last week, killing at least 50 people across the country and bringing smoke and gunfire to Yangon, the business capital.

Even before the boycott, companies grappled with the economic disruption caused by the protest movement, which prompted tens of thousands of government officials and private sector workers to quit their jobs, crippling the banking system.

As the conflict draws sharper lines within society, companies face tough choices over how to communicate their positions and, for some foreign concerns, whether or not to stay in the country.

“Any business operating in Myanmar will need to consider whether it makes sense for them to be there and what kinds of risks they face, including human rights risks,” said Romain Caillaud, risk and reputation consultant. based in Tokyo, formerly based in Myanmar. .

“And they will have to look at where their local partners stand in this changing political context, and whether they fully align themselves with the state board of directors. [junta] or with the demonstrators, or get in between. ”

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

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

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

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

The signatories, including the shipping company Maersk, Coca-Cola, ENI, Total and the telecoms groups Ooredoo and Telenor, said they had observed “with growing and deep concern” the developments since the coup and hoped for 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 U.S. and European Myanmar Chambers of Commerce and the Italy Myanmar Business Association issued a more cruel statement saying they had been invited to meet with military government officials, but had “declined all requests. invitations ”. French and British chamber counterparts said they had “approved” the message.

In recent years, international rights organizations have pressured Myanmar and foreign companies to sever ties with military-backed groups due to the Tatmadaw’s violent campaign against Rohingya Muslims and other minorities. The overthrow of the government of Aung San Suu Kyi seems to have focused the minds of business.

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

Kirin, one of the main targets of international activists due to his beer joint ventures with military-backed Myanmar Economic Holdings, said he would step down from the partnerships the same week as the coup.

After the coup, the actions of multinationals are now subject to closer scrutiny, even though they have no direct partnership with the junta.

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

Protesters said they were monitoring what companies did next.

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

“We may one day forgive the buddies and businessmen who support the junta, but we will not easily forget what they allowed.”

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