Business at a crossroads
Political reforms in Myanmar started in November 2010 followed by the release of the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and ended by the coup d’état in February 2021. Business empire run by the military generals thanks to the fruitful benefits of democratic transition during the last decade will come to an end with the return of trade and diplomatic sanctions from the western countries – United States (US) and members of European Union (EU). US and EU align with other major international partners quickly responded and imposed sanctions over the military’s takeover and subsequent repression in Myanmar. These measures targeted not only the conglomerates of the military generals but also the individuals who have been appointed in the authority positions and supporting the military regime.
However, the generals and their cronies own the majority of economic power both in strategic sectors ranging from telecommunication to oil & gas and in non-strategic commodity sectors such as food and beverages, construction materials, and the list goes on. It is a tall order for the investors to do business by avoiding this lucrative network of the military across the country. After the coup, it raises the most puzzling issue to investors and corporate giants in this natural resource-rich country, “Should I stay or Should I go?”
Crimes against humanity
For most of the people in the country, war crimes and atrocities committed by the military are nothing new. For instances, in 1988, student activists led a political movement and tried to bring an end to the military regime of the general Ne Win. This movement sparked a fire and grew into a nationwide uprising in a very short period but the military used lethal force and slaughtered thousands of civilian protestors including medical doctors, religious figures, student leaders, etc. A few months later, the public had no better options than being silenced under barbaric torture and lawless killings of the regime.
In 2007, there was another major protest called ‘Saffron Uprising’ against the military regime led by the Buddhist monks. It was actually the biggest pro-democracy movement since 1988 and the atmosphere of the demonstration was rather peaceful and non-violent before the military opened live ammunitions towards the crowd full of monks. Everything was in chaos for a couple of months but it ended as usual.
In 2017, the entire world witnessed one of the most tragic events in Myanmar – Again!. The reports published by the UN stated that hundreds of civilians were killed, dozens of villages were burnt down, and over 700,000 people including the majority of Rohingya were displaced to neighboring countries because of the atrocities committed by the military in the western border of the country. After four years passed, the repatriation process and the safety return of these refugees to their places of origin are yet unknown. Most importantly, there is no legal punishment for those who committed and there is no transitional justice for those who suffered in the aforementioned examples of brutalities.
The vicious circle repeated in 2021. With the economy in free fall and the deadliest virus at doorsteps, the people are still unbowed by the oppression of the junta and continue demanding the restoration of democracy and justice. To date, Assistant Association for Political Prisoner (AAPP) reported that due to practicing the rights to expression, 1178 civilians were killed and 7355 were arrested, charged or sentenced by the military junta. Unfortunately, the numbers are still increasing.
Call for economic disengagement
In 2019, the economic interests of the military were disclosed by the report of UN Fact-Finding Mission in which Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holding Limited (MEHL) were described as the prominent entities controlled by the military profitable through the almost-monopoly market in real estate, insurance, health care, manufacturing, extractive industry and telecommunication. It also mentioned the list of foreign businesses in partnership with the military-linked activities which includes Adani (India), Kirin Holdings (Japan), Posco Steel (South Korea), Infosys (India) and Universal Apparel (Hong Kong).
Moreover, Justice for Myanmar, a non-profit watchdog organization, revealed the specific facts and figures on how the billions of revenues has been pouring into the pockets of the high-ranked officers in the military in 2021. Myanmar Oil & Gas Enterprise (MOGE), an another military-controlled authority body, is the key player handling the financial transactions, profit sharing, and contractual agreements with the international counterparts including Total (France), Chevron (US), PTTEP (Thailand), Petronas (Malaysia), and Posco (South Korea) in natural gas projects. It is also estimated that the military will enjoy 1.5 billion USD from these energy giants in 2022.
Additionally, data shows that the corporate businesses currently operating in Myanmar has been enriching the conglomerates of the generals and their cronies as a proof to the ongoing debate among the public and scholars, “Do sanctions actually work?” Some critics stressed that sanctions alone might be difficult to pressure the junta without any collaborative actions from Moscow and Beijing, the longstanding allies of the military. Recent bilateral visits and arm deals between Nay Pyi Taw and Moscow dimmed the hope of the people in Myanmar. It is now crystal clear that the Burmese military never had an intention to use the money from multinational corporations for benefits of its citizens, but instead for buying weapons, building up military academies, and sending scholars to Russia to learn about military technology. In March 2021, the International Fact Finding Mission to Myanmar reiterated its recommendation for the complete economic disengagement as a response to the coup, “No business enterprise active in Myanmar or trading with or investing in businesses in Myanmar should enter into an economic or financial relationship with the security forces of Myanmar, in particular the Tatmadaw [the military], or any enterprise owned or controlled by them or their individual members…”
Blood money and ethical dilemma
In the previous military regime until 2009, the US, UK and other democratic champion countries imposed strict economic and diplomatic sanctions on Myanmar while maintaining ‘carrot and stick’ approach against the geopolitical dominance of China. Even so, energy giants such as Total (France) and Chevron (US), and other ‘low-profile’ companies from ASEAN succeeded in running their operations in Myanmar, let alone the nakedly abuses of its natural resources by China. Doing business in this country at the time of injustice is an ethical question to corporate businesses but most of them seems to prefer maximizing the wealth of their shareholders to the freedom of its bottom millions in poverty.
But there are also companies not hesitating to do something right by showing their willingness not to be a part of human right violations of the regime. For example, Australian mining company, Woodside, decided not to proceed further operations, and ‘get off the fence’ on Myanmar by mentioning that the possibility of complete economical disengagement has been under review. A breaking news in July, 2021 that surprised everyone was the exit of Telenor Myanmar – one of four current telecom operators in the country. The CEO of the Norwegian company announced that the business had been sold to M1 Group, a Lebanese investment firm, due to the declining sales and ongoing political situations compromising its basic principles of human rights and workplace safety.
In fact, cutting off the economic ties with the junta and introducing a unified, complete economic disengagement become a matter of necessity to end the consistent suffering of the people of Myanmar. Otherwise, no one can blame the people for presuming that international community is just taking a moral high ground without any genuine desire to support the fight for freedom and pro-democracy movement.