More than two years after the 2021 coup, public activism against enterprises linked to the Myanmar junta has become an indirect force ensuring the responsible conduct of business.
More than two years after the coup in Myanmar, citizens have broadened their resistance to junta rule by targeting military-affiliated businesses and those that directly serve the junta’s interests. This is pushing businesses to be more sensitive to dealing with the junta and to observe business practices that support human rights.
By 2022, almost two dozen foreign companies and investors had left the Myanmar market or suspended their operations. While such decisions were made partly due to low profits, it may be worth considering the role of public activism against military-affiliated businesses in Myanmar. Stronger public activism in Myanmar after the coup strategically communicated public demands for socially responsible businesses in Myanmar, targeting in particular the Myanmar military’s business empire.
Responsible business frameworks largely focus on the practices that the business, investors and shareholders should follow, such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. In sum, responsible business frameworks respect human rights. But an enforcement mechanism for such practices is virtually absent in Myanmar, where the state has weak capacity and where the state and businesses have entrenched interests.
It should be noted that public activism against the businesses which operate in exploitative and extractive industries has existed in Myanmar and its borderlands since the 1990s and 2000s. Substantive research on public activism towards businesses operating in extractive industries has documented how activist networks along the Thai-Myanmar border resisted dams and gas pipeline projects that adversely affected local and indigenous populations.
The then military-backed quasi-democratic administration’s partial relaxing of constraints on freedom of expression popularised a wide array of activism in Myanmar starting in 2011. A prominent public activism campaign against the China-backed Myitsone dam led to the suspension of that project in 2011. Though the suspension may have been motivated by political interests of the government at the time, much of the success was attributed to widespread public protests.
Since February 2021, public activism against the military’s business empire and businesses serving the junta has grown stronger. Dedicated research on the Myanmar military’s entrenched business interests has provided important data to amplify and strategise messages by local activist groups.
One prominent group of activists, Justice for Myanmar (JFM), conducts research and exposes businesses that fuel the military’s atrocities. Since 2020, JFM has exposed many foreign investors and businesses that align with and support the Myanmar military’s business empire. In July 2021, JFM revealed that nine international banks were investing over US$65 billion in companies that had longstanding commercial ties with the Myanmar military. JFM was vocal in calling out multiple foreign governments to isolate the junta and to divest from the military’s business empire. It disclosed the identities of international and military business brands that pay huge sums in taxes to the junta.
A campaign in mid-April 2023 was aimed at heightening awareness of military-related businesses to those planning local travel and celebrations for the Myanmar new year. This social media campaign disaggregated military-related businesses into multiple categories such as beer companies, petrol stations, and hotels at tourist destinations. The campaign called on the people to avoid using these products and services.
While public activism is becoming more strategic and targeted, there is still room for improvement. Some public campaigns can misinform the public to punish people who have no other choice but to use military-affiliated products.
Civil society groups have targeted businesses financing the junta through strategic communications tactics. Social media, in particular Facebook, is the primary messaging tool for disseminating information. Multiple online campaign sites have been mobilised since the coup, including the Blood Money campaign, Ma Thone Nae (“Don’t use military-affiliated businesses”), Way Way Nay (“Stay away from military-affiliated businesses”). These campaigns expose military-affiliated businesses and their products using user-friendly mobile content.
Blood Money, which aims to stop the military’s foreign income and international businesses seeking to work with the military, has called on international oil and gas enterprises to stop paying taxes to the junta. The most recent campaign targeted PTT, a Thai conglomerate that has reportedly paid nearly US$500 million in taxes to the military junta. A January 2023 campaign called on drivers not to use PTT engine oil.
While no data has yet been published on the financial impact of the public boycott against military-affiliated businesses, news reports indicate that some military businesses have suffered declines in sales. Myanmar Beer, a joint venture of the military’s business arm and Japan’s Kirin Holdings, saw sales plummeting a few months after the coup. MyTel, a telecommunications provider owned by the Myanmar military, lost US$24.9 million and 2 million subscribers from February to April 2021.
While public activism is becoming more strategic and targeted, there is still room for improvement. Some public campaigns can misinform the public to punish people who have no other choice but to use military-affiliated products. MyTel, for example, is the only telco in some parts of Myanmar. Other demands like asking companies to halt tax payments to the junta, can result in companies exiting the Myanmar market. This could ironically lead to military-affiliated entities stepping into the void.
In a fragile context like Myanmar’s, the militarised state not only violates fundamental rights but has also established a business empire to “bankroll brutal operations” against the people. Taking down the military and its business empire is a tall challenge for all the actors involved. However, continued campaigns and public activism, if executed more strategically and informatively for the people and the business community, can still put pressure on the Myanmar military’s business empire.
Mya Yadanar is the pseudonym of a researcher from Myanmar. She studied Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. Her research interests lie in the broader field of economic development and political economy in fragile and conflict-affected settings.