Is Myanmar an ethical minefield for multinational companies?

The company at a crossroads

Political reforms in Myanmar began in November 2010, followed by the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and ended with the coup of February 2021. Business empire led by generals military thanks to the fruitful advantages of the democratic transition over the past decade will end with the return of trade and diplomatic sanctions from Western countries – United States (United States) and members of the European Union (EU). The US and EU are aligning themselves with other major international partners who have reacted swiftly and imposed sanctions following the military takeover and subsequent crackdown in Myanmar. These measures targeted not only conglomerates of military generals but also individuals who were appointed to positions of authority and supporting the military regime.

However, generals and their cronies hold the majority of economic power both in strategic sectors ranging from telecommunications to oil and gas and in non-strategic commodity sectors such as food and beverage, materials and materials. construction, etc. It is a tall order for investors to do business by avoiding this lucrative network of the military across the country. After the coup, it raises the most puzzling question for investors and giant corporations in this resource-rich country: “Should I stay or should I go?” “

Crimes against humanity

For most of the country’s people, war crimes and atrocities committed by the military are nothing new. For example, in 1988 student activists led a political movement and attempted to end General’s military rule. New in. This movement started a fire and turned into a national uprising in a very short time, but the military used lethal force and slaughtered thousands of civilian protesters, including doctors, religious figures, student leaders, etc. A few months later, the public had no better options than to be silenced under the regime’s barbaric torture and anarchic killings.

In 2007 there was another big demonstration called ‘Rudder lifting‘against the military regime led by Buddhist monks. It was in fact the biggest pro-democracy movement since 1988 and the atmosphere of the demonstration was rather peaceful and nonviolent before the military opened with live ammunition towards the crowd full of monks. Everything was in chaos for a few months but it ended as usual.

In 2017, the whole world witnessed one of the most tragic events in Myanmar – Again !. Reports released by the UN said hundreds of civilians have been killed, dozens of villages have been burnt down and more than 700,000 people, the majority of whom are Rohingya, have been displaced to neighboring countries as a result of the atrocities committed. by the military on the western border of the country. . After four years, the repatriation process and the safe return of these refugees to their places of origin is still unknown. More importantly, there is no legal punishment for those who have committed and there is no transitional justice for those who have suffered in the aforementioned examples of brutality.

The vicious cycle was repeated in 2021. With the economy in free fall and the deadliest virus at the gates, the people are still not subjected to the oppression of the junta and continue to demand the restoration of the democracy and justice. To date, the Assistant Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) has reported that due to the practice of speech rights, 1,178 civilians have been killed and 7,355 have been arrested, charged or convicted by the military junta. Unfortunately, the numbers continue to rise.

Call for economic disengagement

In 2019, the military’s economic interests were exposed by the UN fact-finding mission report in which Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holding Limited (MEHL) were described as the entities leading military-controlled profitable markets through virtually all monopoly markets in real estate, insurance, health care, manufacturing, mining and telecommunications. He also mentioned the list of foreign companies partnering with military related activities which include Adani (India), Kirin Holdings (Japan), Posco Steel (South Korea), Infosys (India) and Universal Apparel (Hong Kong ).

What’s more, Justice for Myanmar, a nonprofit watchdog organization, revealed specific facts and figures about how billions in revenue flowed into the pockets of senior military officers in 2021. Myanmar Oil & Gas Enterprise (MOGE ), another army – controlled body of authority, is the key player that manages financial transactions, profit sharing and contractual agreements with international counterparts including Total (France), Chevron (United States), PTTEP (Thailand), Petronas (Malaysia) and Posco (South Korea) in natural gas projects. It is also estimated that the military will benefit from $ 1.5 billion from these energy giants in 2022.

Moreover, the data shows that companies currently operating in Myanmar have enriched the conglomerates of generals and their henchmen as evidence of the ongoing debate among the public and academics: “Do sanctions really work? Some critics have pointed out that the sanctions alone could be difficult to pressure the junta without any collaborative action from Moscow and Beijing, the military’s longtime allies. Recent bilateral visits and armaments agreements between Nay Pyi Taw and Moscow have tarnished the hopes of the Burmese people. It is now clear that the Burmese military never intended to use the money of multinational corporations for the benefit of its citizens, but rather to buy weapons, establish military academies and send academics to Russia for learn about military technology. In March 2021, the International Fact-Finding Mission to Myanmar reiterated its recommendation for full economic disengagement in response to the coup: “No business enterprise operating in Myanmar or trading or investing in enterprises in Myanmar should enter into an economic or financial relationship. with Myanmar security forces, especially the Tatmadaw [the military], or any company owned or controlled by them or by their individual members… ”

Blood money and the ethical dilemma

In the previous military regime until 2009, the US, UK and other democracy champion countries imposed strict economic and diplomatic sanctions on Myanmar while maintaining a ‘carrot and stick’ approach. Against the geopolitical domination of China. Despite this, energy giants such as Total (France) and Chevron (US) and other “low-profile” ASEAN companies have managed to operate in Myanmar, not to mention blatant abuses. of its natural resources by China. Doing business in this country in a time of injustice is an ethical issue for companies, but most of them seem to prefer maximizing the wealth of their shareholders to the freedom of its poorest millions.

But there are also companies that don’t hesitate to do something good by showing their willingness not to participate in the regime’s human rights violations. For example, the Australian mining company Woodside decided not to continue operations and to “get out of the fence” regarding Myanmar by mentioning that the possibility of a full economic disengagement was under consideration. Breaking news in July 2021 that surprised everyone was the exit of Telenor Myanmar – one of the country’s four current telecommunications operators. The CEO of the Norwegian company announced that the company had been sold to M1 Group, a Lebanese investment company, due to declining sales and persistent political situations compromising its basic principles of human rights and safety at work.

In fact, cutting economic ties with the junta and introducing unified and complete economic disengagement becomes a necessity to end the constant suffering of the people of Myanmar. Otherwise, no one can blame the people for assuming that the international community is just taking a high moral stance without any sincere desire to support the freedom struggle and the pro-democracy movement.


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