Campaigners target firms doing business with Myanmar’s military

Facebook and Western Union are among the most recognisable names on ‘dirty list’ distributed by human rights activists.

A soldier stands guard as they provide security upon arrival of Britain''s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt at the Sittwe airport Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018, in Sittwe, Rakhine State, Myanmar.
Myanmar's military has been accused of 'genocidal intent' in its crackdown against the Rohingya [Ye Aung Thu/AP]

Yangon, Myanmar – Sprinklers whirled as workers swept leaves and pushed lawn mowers on a recent sun-baked afternoon at the Okkala Golf Resort in Myanmar‘s main city.

As he steered a golf buggy between the fairways, the caddy master gestured to a man teeing off nearby who he said was a local movie star.

Another well-known patron of the club, he added, was Zaw Zaw – a tycoon whose dealings with the former military government previously earned him a place on a United States‘s blacklist of sanctioned individuals.

The resort, which hosts about 150 golfers a day, is owned by the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), an opaque military conglomerate that provides the generals with off-the-books income.

Following widespread outrage at the military’s 2017 campaign of mass murder and rape against Rohingya civilians, the United Nation’s human rights envoy for Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, has urged foreign countries to consider reinstating sanctions against the company.

Along with another military conglomerate, MEC has received “significant international investment” since Myanmar opened up its economy in 2011, Lee noted in a report this month.

Former US President Barack Obama’s decision to end most US sanctions against Myanmar in 2016 gave the military companies a further boost.

Since then hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled from army-led massacres to Bangladesh.

But even amid calls for Myanmar’s top generals to be prosecuted for genocide, military-owned businesses have escaped new sanctions.

“You would think that imposing sanctions stopping companies doing business with the military would be a no-brainer, but not a single country has done so,” said Mark Farmaner, director of the pressure group Burma Campaign UK.

‘Name and shame’

The organisation, which uses an alternative name for Myanmar, published a “dirty list” of 49 companies from the US, Europe, India, China and elsewhere in December.

The aim is to “name and shame” companies that do business with the military or are involved in projects that threaten human rights, said Farmaner.  

Facebook and Western Union are among the most recognisable names on the list, which includes technology, finance and energy companies and will soon be updated to add firms involved in arms, timber, and agriculture.

Last month the group claimed an early victory when the payments giant Visa said it would not renew a deal it had struck to promote the Okkala Golf Resort to its customers in Myanmar.

In a letter to a supporter, the company said it was “committed to being a responsible leader” and had “decided not to renew” the promotion after it expired.

Visa did not respond to requests for comment from Al Jazeera.

Contract terminated

Another company added to the list, the French energy provider Engie, said in January it pulled out of the controversial Upper Yeywa dam project, which rights groups say will displace villagers and cause environmental destruction.


The company did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment. But in a letter to Burma Campaign UK, it said one of its affiliate companies entered into the project before Engie acquired it, and it had now terminated the contract.

The European Union and Canada last year imposed travel bans and asset freezes on seven generals involved in the crackdown against the Rohingya. But that did not include the commander-in-chief of the military, Min Aung Hlaing.

The US, meanwhile, has blacklisted four military commanders and a border guard force commander, also stopping short of sanctioning Min Aung Hlaing.

These measures, said Farmaner, amount to little more than “stopping a small number of military personnel going on holiday” to certain countries. 

Burma Campaign UK has now focussed its attention on the money transfer company Western Union, which uses the military-owned Myawaddy Bank as an agent for its remittance services in the country.

Hundreds of supporters emailed the company in response to a call out urging them to “tell Western Union to stop funding genocide”.

Critics pointed to a statement from a UN fact-finding mission last year that said the military’s abuses against ethnic minorities in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states were so serious that “any engagement in any form” with its leadership or businesses is “indefensible”.

Farmaner said neither his organisation or any of its supporters have received a reply from the company.

A Western Union spokesperson told Al Jazeera the company was “fully compliant” with regulations governing its Myanmar remittances, and all its agents in the country “undergo rigorous due diligence”.

Whipping up hatred

Facebook has deleted the pages of senior military officials after coming under heavy criticism for allowing the spread of hate speech in Myanmar following the 2017 violence.

But it is still hosting the pages of military companies and a government information page that “was one of the main official pages whipping up fear and hatred of the Rohingya” before the 2017 crackdown, said Farmaner.


The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Certain companies on the list are less susceptible to public pressure, including several Chinese firms, said Farmaner. But some are listing on stock exchanges and investing in Western countries, creating new opportunities to influence them.

Burma Campaign UK only supports sanctions that directly target the military, rather than broader economic restrictions.

The EU is mulling trade sanctions against Myanmar that would see its tariff-free access to the bloc revoked.

This, argued Farmaner, would harm ordinary people in the garment sector more than the military or the government.  

The EU has avoided sanctioning military companies, has failed to throw its support behind referring Myanmar to the International Criminal Court, and has not supported a global arms embargo, Farmaner said.

It also continues to work with the military-run police force on a controversial scheme to promote human rights, he added.

“Yet they are considering sanctions against thousands of mostly young women working in garment factories,” said Farmaner.

Several groups representing the Rohingya diaspora have come out in favour of the sanctions, arguing the military’s economic interests extend to garment factories and withdrawing trade privileges would help amp up the pressure.

“Some workers losing their jobs cannot be compared with one million Rohingya facing genocide in Burma,” Nurul Islam, chairman of the UK-based Arakan Rohingya National Organisation, told Al Jazeera.

Only last year, said Farmaner, Rohingya leaders “were telling us they didn’t support general sanctions and that they feared such sanctions would turn people in Burma against them even more”.

But, he added, inaction from foreign governments is “causing attitudes to harden”.

Source: Al Jazeera