A poster by Myanmar creative Htet Aung in support of peaceful anti-coup demonstrations. (Photo: Htet Aung/ Yangon Design)

A poster by Myanmar creative Htet Aung in support of peaceful anti-coup demonstrations. (Photo: Htet Aung/ Yangon Design)

Learning from “Social Punishment:” Neutrality in Myanmar is No Longer Tenable

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Business leaders, foreign and local, have a big choice to make as Myanmar’s crisis deepens.

In the two and a half turbulent months since the Burmese military staged their 1 February coup, violence against protesters has taken on new, frightening features. Brutal crackdowns on anti-coup demonstrations have increased in number and intensity—soldiers reportedly used explosives in a 9 April crackdown in Bago—and protesters’ opportunities for systematic communication have been curtailed by internet cuts. Given these shifts, amongst anti-coup activists, there is increasing support for alternative routes forward. One is the formation of a new federal army.

For those who hope to avoid a new phase of Myanmar’s decades-long civil war, their focus remains on the wallets of the generals, their family members, and others perceived to be allied with the military. Emptying the coffers of the military—and, equally, those of the state—and bringing Myanmar to the brink of economic collapse, in this view, will force the regime to negotiate, if not surrender. This is a primary goal of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), which saw three-quarters of the country’s civil servants strike following the coup, crippling the country’s banking system and transportation and logistics sectors. Boycott campaigns have also gained momentum, including via the “Way Way Nay” (Stay Away) app, which helps users make informed decisions about their purchases, highlighting state-owned companies and brands with close ties to the military. 

Beyond these efforts to reject military-linked products, much attention has also been paid to calls for international boycotts, including of all goods from China and of Singaporean brands perceived as being too slow to reject the military. CDM pressure also has increased on private companies in Myanmar, including tycoons and business entities seen to be actively aligning themselves with the military, as well as those who have remained silent. Equally vulnerable are companies that have remained neutral, releasing carefully worded statements that attempt to divorce business concerns from the ongoing political crisis. A campaign of “social punishment” seeks to identify and pressure local commercial players who fall into this category, pairing longstanding boycotts of multinationals with a similar effort, pursued at a local scale. 

The international media has featured the social punishment campaign in Myanmar as an effort to “name-and-shame” members of military families, but the campaign has also targeted the business community, sometimes at the township or neighborhood level. Within Yangon, convenience store branches have been pressured to remove military-linked products, such as Mytel sim cards, from their shelves. Even market sellers and street-side vendors have been pressured online, when, for example, some chose to continue selling on a day dedicated to a “silent strike”. Simultaneously, vendors’ efforts to support anti-coup initiatives—refusing to sell to military families or distributing free food to protesters—have been celebrated, so much so that a Monywa street vendor was reportedly rewarded with a house and plot of land. This hyper-local activism demonstrates in Myanmar, where anti-coup campaigners have been explicit about their hopes to devastate the national economy, that each and every transaction becomes critical

Onello’s comments echo those of local activists, who claim that any collaboration with the military, no matter how small-scale, amounts to enabling its abuses.

While anti-coup activists have used social punishment to underline the clear-cut distinction they see as dividing those who support the military regime and those who reject it, foreign firms have opted for a fuzzier, more porous boundary. Emphasising the potential for economic collapse, many have cut direct ties with the military even as they continue day-to-day operations, in opposition to activists’ demands. The rationale for such a move, routinely cited by entities such as French energy giant Total, is characterised as humanitarian in nature, aiming to minimise harm to workers. This, too, is the concern foregrounded by a recent Financial Times article that described protesters’ as playing a “dangerous game” that pits embattled multinationals’ profit margins, and the broader economy, against the well-being of Myanmar’s general populace. 

In response, Michelle Onello, Special Counsel at the Global Justice Center penned a letter decrying “the false narrative that business and human rights are completely divorced from each other in Myanmar.” Onello’s comments echo those of local activists, who claim that any collaboration with the military, no matter how small-scale, amounts to enabling its abuses. As the regime’s tactics intensify and become more brutal, this is a viewpoint that those with longstanding interests in the country might consider adopting. 

Activists are already preparing to limit the damage done by the economic collapse they aim to bring about. Identifying alternative networks of support—organizing pop-up markets, “take if you need, donate if you have” programs, and networks of mutual aid. In contrast to the stance of multinationals, local activists argue that rejecting the military does not have to amount to abandoning the most vulnerable. Their hope is that others, including businesses, will come to this same realisation. Rather than warning against an imminent (and likely inevitable) economic breakdown and trying to present themselves as compassionately “neutral”, business leaders should follow the protestors’ lead and invest in proactive support mechanisms instead.

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