Taking solidarity action on Myanmar

In February 2021, the military seized control in Myanmar. Civilians face internet blackouts, mass shootings and other violent crackdowns on protests. 

“The military’s criminal conduct is enabled by its business interests,” campaign group Justice For Myanmar says. While the military has widespread economic control, many global corporations may be complicit. 

Here we outline some of those companies with ties to the military and ask, what should consumers do in solidarity with citizens and pro-democracy activists in Myanmar? 

A number of global companies have long financed Myanmar’s brutal military, maintaining ties despite years of human rights violations. Many others, however, have now found themselves tied to the regime in the wake of the coup. 

The military’s takeover of public Ministries and other state entities means that global corporations who previously dealt with legitimate government bodies are now in joint ventures with, leasing land from or paying taxes and other fees directly to the military junta. 

Companies must take action to ensure that they are not funding violations.

What’s the situation in Myanmar?

On February 1st, the military staged a coup, imposing a one-year national emergency and handing power over to its commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing. Civilians in the country, which is also known as Burma, have faced curfews, internet blackouts and ongoing refusal of their democratic and civil rights. The military has unlawfully detained Aung San Suu Kyi, who - although internationally criticised for her denial of the Rohingya genocide - won a 70% majority in the recent election. 

The coup follows a long history of violence and suppression by the Myanmar military, which ruled the country as a dictatorship from 1962 – 2010, and has remained powerful in the decade since. It has been the perpetrator of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim population of Rakhine state – causing over 700,000 people to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. 

In the last few months, the country has seen widespread pro-democracy protests and strikes, as well as a growing Civil Disobedience Movement, which has called for a widespread domestic boycott of military-owned companies. 

Security forces have used water cannons, rubber bullets and live ammunition against demonstrators. On the 27th March, over 100 protestors were killed, in the deadliest day since the coup.

The role of international companies

Funding the military

Despite their repeated and ongoing human rights abuses, “international companies have played a crucial role in enriching the military,” over previous decades, says Mark Farmaner from Burma Campaign UK. 

International companies have been involved in Myanmar since 1988, when Ne Win’s military government was overthrown by a second military coup. Ne Win had faced widespread unrest in the country over the steep decline of the economy, as well as his authoritarian rule. In order to shore up power and grow their military arsenal, his successors overturned his economically isolationist policies and invited foreign investment into the country. 

Global conglomerates like Total and Chevron moved in. At the time Myanmar law stated that all foreign investors had to form a joint venture with the state, thereby forming close ties between the companies and the military.

“Over time, the military has expanded to control vast portions of the Myanmar economy, consolidating its grip on the country,” Yadanar Maung, spokesperson for Justice For Myanmar agrees. “It obscures its economic influence through a sophisticated network of holding companies, private companies, shell companies, and crony companies, in some cases obfuscating their deep ties to business.”

“Every one of the military companies has benefited from international finance, equipment, expertise,'' Mark says. “There is not a single military company we know of that didn’t have international support.”

The situation has significantly worsened with the military takeover of the government, as government bodies have become military controlled. Campaigners point out that there are several different ways in which companies can now be tied to the military:

  • Companies that have remained in joint ventures, held contracts or had other ties with military enterprises and bodies throughout.
  • Companies that formed ties with military enterprises or bodies under the previous dictatorship, which then transitioned to democratic government control during the 2010s, and are now under military control again. 
  • Companies that never previously held ties with the military, but were in joint ventures, held contracts or had other ties with democratic government bodies, which are controlled by the military since the coup. 

Company ties

Although some companies have very direct ties with the military (such as Total - see below), many other companies may be supporting its regime more indirectly. For example, HSBC, Samsung and BMO are all accused of financing POSCO, a South Korean company and major financier for the military. Although POSCO was reviewing its dividend payments and joint ventures with the military as of end May 2021, it had not taken action at the time of writing. 

Others stand accused of selling directly to the military. For example Tata Sons (which owns stakes in a number of independently-run Tata companies, including the owner of the Tetley, Tea Pigs, Landrover and Jaguar brands) was accused in 2018 of selling equipment to the military including cars used by generals. It has failed to comment on ongoing supply relationships, according to Mark from Burma Campaign UK. 

Huawei has been accused of selling cameras to the military, which are being used for facial recognition. The cameras come installed with a technology (not owned by Huawei) that automatically scans faces and vehicle number plates, alerting authorities to those on a wanted list.

Below is a list of  accusations against some of the world's biggest companies currently operating in Myanmar. 

This is based on research by Justice For Myanmar carried out in in 2021, the Burma Campaign UK in 2018-19 and other news outlets since the coup. 

We checked company websites and did an internet search for any changes of company policy: for the below companies, no such information was found.

Company

Links to the Military

Brands

Total

Running a joint venture with state-owned company MOGE. Suspended some payments in April.

SunPower solar panels (52% ownership)

Guide to solar panels

Chevron

Running a joint venture with state-owned company MOGE. Suspended some payments in May. 

Lobbying against sanctions.

Texaco petrol

Guide to petrol

HSBC

Creditor for POSCO, a global steelmaking corporation and major financial backer for the Myanmar military. Financed Viettel Global Investment, which bankrolled military controlled mobile operator Mytel. 

HSBC Holdings (owns HSBC, First Direct, M&S Money (50%))

Guide to current accounts

BMO

Holding shares in POSCO, a global steelmaking corporation and major financial backer for the Myanmar military.

BMO

Guide to investment funds

Samsung

Holding shares in POSCO, a global steelmaking corporation and major financial backer for the Myanmar military.

Samsung

Guide to mobile phones

Tata Sons

Supplying of equipment to the military, including military staff cars. Accusation made 2018.

Holds stakes in around 100 independently run companies making up the Tata Group, including the manufacturers of Tetley tea, Teapigs and Jaguar and Land Rover cars.

Guide to tea
Guide to herbal teas
Guide to cars

ExxonMobil

Holding a research and development partnership with POSCO, a global steelmaking corporation and major financial backer for the Myanmar military.

Esso

Guide to petrol

Hilton Hotels

Running a hotel in Arakan state that directly finances the military. “The hotel is located where the military committed genocide against Rohingya and the hotel pays rent to the same office that buys weapons used in atrocity crimes against the people, in a shocking breach of Hilton’s human rights obligations.”

 

Huawei

Providing cameras used for facial recognition to the military.

Leasing apartments in Golden City, which “channels millions of dollars to the office of the Quartermaster General, the military’s department which buys weapons of war that are used on the people of Myanmar in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity” and is on military land.

Huawei

Guide to mobile phones,

DHL

Running a joint venture with the Ministry of Transport and Communications, controlled by the military since the coup.

DHL

Mitsubishi Corporation

Operates port terminal at Thilawa under a build-operate-transfer agreement with Myanma Port Authority; developer of project on land leased from Myanma Railways. Both Port Authority and Railways controlled by military since coup.

Princes, Napolina, OVO Energy (20%)

Guide to energy suppliers

Guide to olive oil

Guide to tinned tomatoes

Sumitomo Corporation

Joint operator of mobile network with Ministry of Transport and Communications. Also developing gas-fired thermal power plant in partnership with the Ministry of Electricity and Energy. Both Ministries controlled by military since coup.

Fyffes

Guide to bananas

Royal Dutch Shell PLC

Has production sharing contracts for offshore drilling with state-owned company MOGE. 

Shell Energy

Facebook

Allowing military companies to advertise on the platform, despite decision to ban the military in February.

Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp

Guide to video conferencing

Google

Hosting applications owned by military companies.

Google: Play, Pixel, Books, Gmail

Guide to streaming services

Guide to mobile phones

Guide to booksellers

Guide to email providers

Apple

Hosting applications owned by military companies.

Apple

Guide to mobile phones

Stories behind the involvement

Fuel pumps

Case study: Total

Total is “likely to be the military regime’s single biggest source of revenue,” according to Justice For Myanmar.

The fossil fuel giant runs the Yadana offshore gas pipeline as a joint venture with Chevron, Thai company PTTEP, and state-owned enterprise Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which also acts as regulator for the industry. 

The pipeline, which carries gas from Myanmar to Thailand, has been associated with forced labour, land confiscation, forced relocation, rape, torture and murder by the security forces requested to protect its construction in the 1990s. In 2005, Total agreed a €5.2million settlement with eight citizens from the country, who said they had been forced to work on the pipeline. In 2011, further testimonies from villagers and soldiers, who provided security for the pipeline on behalf of Total, stated that locals were being forced to work for its running.

MOGE - the state partner in the project - is said to have “deep links to the military’s business empire” and since the coup is now under direct military control.

Recent analysis from Justice For Myanmar says that Total may be profiteering from the situation. The company has been making “unbelievably high profits” on the pipeline, at a time when “extractive industry analysts have estimated that the generals gave away hundreds of millions of dollars a year in tax breaks to foreign oil companies.”

The company is said to have made an astonishing 97% in profits before tax.

“Myanmar’s generals may have allowed foreign investors to walk away with hundreds of millions of dollars in excess profits – money which should have gone to Myanmar’s people, according to Justice For Myanmar."

According to Mark, “The big advantage for corporations like Total is that dictatorships are desperate for money - offer better deals, allow them to extract resources at much lower prices. Total has always been experts at going into countries facing dictatorships and human rights violations around the world because it knows it can screw them for much better deals.”

Total’s business has enriched a human-rights violating junta in Myanmar previously: in 2005 it was likewise identified as “the largest European corporate funder of the regime,” and yet failed to address its role in the country despite ongoing international pressure.

Total has claimed that it is continuing business in Myanmar for humanitarian reasons - to protect employees from the risk of forced labour under the junta and to continue to provide energy to the population of Yangon and Thailand. In April, the company suspended dividend payments from one pipeline to the junta and announced that it would discontinue new investments in the country. 

However, campaigners are calling for the company to publish details of and “stop the other 90% of payments flowing to the military from the pipeline.” They suggest that the company should pay all dividends, taxes, tariffs, fees and other amounts due to MOGE into a protected account until democracy is restored.

In May, media outlet Khit Thit surveyed over 11,000 Facebook users based in Myanmar and found that 99% believed international companies operating in Myanmar should stop paying revenue to the account of MOGE; 98% believed they should stop paying even if it led to a halt in production and an electricity blackout in Yangon; and 99% believed that revenues should be kept in a separated account and transferred only after a democratically elected government take power.

Total owns 52% of SunPower solar panels. Chevron (also a partner in the pipeline project) owns Texaco petrol stations.

Clothing brands and the links with Myanmar

Rolls of blue jeans

Garment brands

Many companies are also linked to the country through their supply chains. Over the last decade, Myanmar has developed a burgeoning manufacturing sector, including for global clothing brands.

Workers in these sectors played a key role in recent pro-democracy protests. Strikes across the country aimed to bring Myanmar’s economy to a halt in protest against the coup, and union leaders played a key organising role. Industrial zones housing factories were amongst the areas where the military’s mass shootings of protestors took place.

Strikers called on well-known international brands such as H&M, Zara and Mango to denounce the military takeover and to protect striking supply chain workers from being fired, harassed or arrested over their protests.

Koen Oosterom, Country Manager for Myanmar at Fair Wear Foundation, which works with member brands and other industry influencers to improve conditions for workers in garment factories, says that some factories wanting to deter workers from joining demonstrations have also focused on union leaders. “It’s very important that brands speak out and try to ensure this protection is happening, so these vulnerable workers are not targeted in a round of dismissals.”

In a letter signed by multiple trade unions, Labour Behind the Label, Burma Campaign UK and others, civil society also called for brands to “Protect workers in areas where the security situation, or a heavy police or military presence makes them feel unsafe going into work, ensuring they are not forced into work, and are not penalized or face loss of wages.”

In order for this to happen, Koen emphases that clothing brands need to step up and accept their responsibility towards factory owners and workers: “Factories were closed for some time, materials might have arrived late, a percentage of workers in the factory weren’t available. We therefore stress that brands should practice leniency, and not apply any sort of penalties when it comes to delivery deadlines.”

Crowd of people protesting with placards crime humanity Burma
Image courtesy of Burma Campaign UK

What should companies be doing?

“Companies need to do a root and branch review of how they’re operating,” Mark says.

Yadanar from Justice For Myanmar agrees: “For companies in business with the military before the Feb 1 coup, we are continuing to call on them to end all business. For companies that were in business with civilian entities before the coup, we call on them to suspend all payments to the junta and place funds in a protected account until democracy is restored, with the military under civilian control.”

There is a growing domestic boycott of military companies within Myanmar itself, showing clear backing from within the country for cutting this avenue for income to the military. Stores and restaurants in the country have stopped stocking some products known to fund the junta. 

In ending ties with the military, Justice For Myanmar emphasises, companies need to carefully assess the potential impacts including heightened risks to workers’ rights but also steps that may in fact strengthen the military, such as transferring assets or funds.

Those invested in companies doing business with the military must also “ensure they are not profiting from the bloodshed being committed in Myanmar,” Yadanar from Justice For Myanmar says.

Investors in complicit companies should apply pressure on that company to end military ties, Mark says, and if they refuse to change practices should sell the shares. “Give them an ultimatum,” he says. “You withdraw, or we withdraw.”

“You can’t improve how you do business with the military. Either you are doing it or not.”

Should companies boycott the country? 

“No one is really calling for a complete and blanket boycott of the country. Companies need to be looked at on a case by case basis,” Mark for Burma Campaign UK says, to minimise the harm to those living in the country.

Telenor, a telecommunications company which is majority owned by the Norwegian state, is a good example, Mark says. Telenor is the leading mobile operator in the country, and recently paid its annual license fee to the government. But campaigners recognise that the company is treading a tricky line: “lots of people don’t want Telenor to be kicked out, otherwise the mobile service will be government controlled.” Instead, the company is speaking out about the regime, publishing orders it receives from the military to shut down the internet in the country. 

When asked whether garment brands should withdraw from the country, Koen likewise says, “The population of Myanmar would be the real victim in the case of a mass withdrawal. But it is a real dilemma. We try to ensure to the best of our ability no links to the army, no indirect support, but there are areas where this becomes a bit fuzzy. Port authorities, customs etc. may be where some sort of funding will end up in the coffers of the authorities.” 

“If brands do withdraw,” Koen says, “they should really take into consideration: What would happen to workers? Are they being paid their legal requirements? Are they getting severance pay? Are there options for factories to find another customer? It’s the responsibility of brands to really ensure they assess the implications of their decisions.”

Koen says that even where brands are pausing ties, “We still have the hope it will be a temporary suspension. We feel there is a commitment vis-a-vis the population - the garment workers - hundreds of thousands of people who have built their livelihoods in the garment industry.”

Some international brands that initially suspended orders from the country are now returning, such as Primark and H&M. “With our decision we want to avoid the imminent risk of our suppliers having to close their factories which would inevitably result in unemployment for tens of thousands of garment workers,” H&M stated.

Case study: Kirin

Many companies have already taken action on their links to the military, including Kirin, owner of Kirin Ichiban, Fourpure and Little Creatures beers. The international brewer previously ran a joint venture with the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (MEH), a company controlled by the Myanmar military, despite widespread international criticism. 

In September 2020, Amnesty International published a report which found that around £12bn in dividend payments had been transferred from MEH to military units over the 20 years since it was founded. Shareholders in the company included Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief who has been instated as leader following the coup, and military battalions that Amnesty has linked to crimes against humanity against Rohingya populations, as well as war crimes in Kachin and northern Shan state.

Kirin has also admitted that its subsidiary made three donations to the military and authorities in 2017, when they were involved in the ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya. The donations totalled USD$30,000, and Min Aung Hlaign received the first in person, stating that it would in part fund “security personnel and state service personnel”.

Kirin cut all ties with MEH following the coup.

What should consumers do?

Although the situation is complex, there are many actions consumers can take. 

  1. “Consumers have a key role to play in boycotting companies doing business with the Myanmar military,” Yadanar from Justice For Myanmar says. 

Companies that you may want to boycott include: Total (SunPower brand), Chevron (Esso brand), Tata (Tetley, Tea Pigs, Jaguar and Landrover), Hilton Hotels, DHL and Huawei

  1. Ensure your money isn’t inadvertently funding the regime.

Justice For Myanmar has published a spreadsheet of all public companies financially supporting the junta. It is calling for institutional investors including pension funds “to use their leverage to convince their investee companies to act responsibly, and to divest from those companies if they do not act responsibly.” 

If you’re a member of a pension fund, you can use the spreadsheet to check against your pension fund’s holdings. 

272 members of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) have already written to the UK university pension fund. Its letter is a great model of how you may want to engage.

Likewise, EIRIS CRN has published a spreadsheet of companies operating in Myanmar - including well-known brands like H&M, Apple and Colgate Palmolive. It is calling on consumers to use the spreadsheet and “Ask your bank, pension, or other fund managers if they invest directly or through other investment funds in companies operating in Burma/Myanmar”: banks, pensions and other investors could play a significant role in ensuring that companies adequately assess their impact on citizens in the country. 

  1. Contact companies. 

For companies with ties to the military, let them know you are boycotting the company until they stop funding the regime, and demand action on social media, via phone or via email.

For companies without known ties to the military, contact them asking what they’re doing about the situation.

“Consumers could ask brands a) are you sourcing from Myanmar? b) what is your position on Myanmar? How do you ensure you’re not providing any direct or indirect support with the military regime? How do you deal with your commitment vis-a-vis the workers? ” Koen from Fair Wear says. 

The Special Advisory Council for Myanmar is publishing a table of actions taken by states, companies and pension funds, so you can check on there to see what the latest updates are before contacting a company. 

  1. Follow Justice For Myanmar and Burma Campaign UK’s calls to action. 

Both organisations are publishing regular updates on their sites, including petitions. 

  1. Take political action.

Political action is also vital, whether that is staging a protest outside Total’s headquarters or writing to your MP to ask what their stance is on sanctions. 

“Slowly we are seeing the pressure on the Myanmar military and its business empire through domestic boycott movements, targeted economic sanctions and businesses terminating partnerships with the Myanmar military,” Yadanar from Justice For Myanmar says.

“The military is feeling the heat of the multiple, international and domestic action against its business interests. Coordinated, targeted economic sanction and an end to business partnerships with the Myanmar military is key to dismantling their business empire.”