Myanmar: Business & investor responses to the Rohingya crisis

[Updated Dec 2017] Over half a million Rohingya refugees have fled Rakhine State in Myanmar since 25 August 2017 when a group that calls itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for coordinated attacks on police and army posts. This has led to intensified military-led security operations, including the burning down of Rohingya villages in “clearance operations”, as well immense humanitarian challenges both in Rakhine State and in Bangladesh, where those fleeing violence have sought refuge. Refugees continue to arrive in Bangladesh to date.

The response of the private sector is important not only due to the scale of the crisis, but also because Myanmar is in a critical stage in its economic development – having just transitioned to a nominally civilian government after over half a century of military rule. On this page, we compile the actions some companies have taken, as well as the proposals and demands for company action being advanced by civil society.

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19 December 2017

Leading brands and trade associations call on Myanmar to respect rights

Author: Tom Phillips, Ethical Trading Initiative (UK)

Leading garment brands and trade associations from Europe and the US have called on the Myanmar government to respect the rights of the ethnic minority population of Rakhine State or risk further eroding business and investor confidence. Sixteen organisations including the Ethical Trading Initiative, Fair Labor Association, American Apparel & Footwear Association, and the Foreign Trade Association, expressed their concerns in a joint written statement to the President of Myanmar and in meetings with government ministers. Since the escalation in violence earlier this year, more than 600,000 Rohingya refugees have fled across the border to Bangladesh. Families have been torn apart and individuals have lost their lives. The joint statement expresses commitment to the future of Myanmar and its successful development, but calls on the Government to take all necessary steps, with the support of international agencies, to bring the crisis to an end and ensure refugees can safely and voluntarily return to their homes and lives.

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11 December 2017

Myanmar: Cartier stops sourcing gemstones from country in response to campaign against "genocide gems"

Author: Philip Sherwell & Jon Ungoed-Thomas, The Times (UK)

"Taint of Burma's genocide gems", 10 Dec 2017

... Burmese gemstones used in high-end jewellery made by famous western brands are now at the centre of the international outcry over the persecution of Rohingya Muslims. Cartier... assured shoppers... that it would no longer buy gemstones from Burma after campaigners exposed the company... [The] company said it...stopped purchasing gemstones from the country last Friday....after a campaign to boycott “genocide gems” over the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims... Tiffany & Co has already said that its longstanding policy is not to buy gemstones from Burma. The controversy...comes as fashion experts have described a surge in demand for rubies... Activists from the International Campaign for the Rohingya (ICR) plan next to target Bulgari...  [Gems] are controversial for the role they play in the funding of Burma’s armed forces, which are driving Rohingya from their villages. Burma’s gem industry was previously the target of European Union and American sanctions, but these were lifted... after the generals released Aung San Suu Kyi... Cartier...said...that [they were] not prepared to discuss the policy... “Cartier’s decision to stop buying Burmese gems demonstrates how ordinary people can directly sanction Burma’s army,” said...ICR. “There’s no market for genocide gems.” Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier and Bulgari did not... comment.

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16 November 2017

Myanmar: Chevron says it will push for human rights following criticism over its partnership with govt.

Author: Faarea Masud, BBC World Service

"Chevron says it will push for Myanmar human rights", November 2017

The firm has multi-billion-dollar energy investments in Myanmar...After years of pressure from activist investors, Chevron said it would work for "a business environment that respects human rights"."Chevron values the ongoing dialogue with the stockholders on this critical issue of violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar," the firm wrote in a statement to the BBC..."We will continue to work with other US companies and the government to promote the value of US investment in Myanmar and the need to foster a business environment that respects human rights"...Chevron, with French oil giant Total, has oil and gas exploration projects in the resource-rich Rakhine Basin, as well as established projects in other parts of Myanmar...The northern Rakhine state has been the site of alleged human rights abuses, including rape, mass murder and the destruction of villages...Activist Chevron investor Joshua Brockwell from Azzad Asset Management told the BBC: "There is concern for business assets in the region as well as reputational risks that go along with having your name associated with a country that is possibly engaged in genocide".

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7 November 2017

Press Release: International Campaign for the Rohingya urges PETRONAS to withdraw from Myanmar to protest violence

Author: International Campaign for the Rohingya

"Press Release: International Campaign for the Rohingya (Malaysia) petitions Petronas to withdraw from Myanmar", 7 November

The International Campaign for the Rohingya (ICR) has sent a petition to PETRONAS, calling for the company to stop operations or investments in Myanmar by January 1, 2018, in protest against the Myanmar’s government’s repression and violence against ethnic Rohingya...“The withdrawal of Petronas from Myanmar would send a strong political and economic signal to the government of Myanmar that it must end its repression and violence against the Rohingya”...United Nations investigators who have conducted interviews of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have noted “a consistent, methodical pattern of actions resulting in gross human rights violations affecting hundreds of thousands of people”...“As Malaysia’s largest corporation, PETRONAS needs to demonstrate that Malaysian companies operate responsibly around the world and avoid doing business with governments that are complicit in acts of genocide and crimes against humanity”...Organized by the International Campaign for the Rohingya and Azzad Asset Management, letters signed by 31 investor organizations representing more than $53 billion in assets under management were sent to executives at six oil and gas companies, emphasizing the serious risks of doing business with the Myanmar regime. 

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30 October 2017

Myanmar: Human rights groups call into question Facebook's role in Rohingya crisis

Author: Megan Specia & Paul Mozuroct, NY Times (USA)

"A War of Words Puts Facebook at the Center of Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis", 27 Oct 2017

Myanmar’s government has barred Ashin Wirathu, an ultranationalist Buddhist monk, from public preaching for the past year, saying his speeches helped fuel the violence against the country’s Rohingya ethnic group that the United Nations calls ethnic cleansing... So he has turned to an even more powerful...platform to get his message out — Facebook. International human rights groups say Facebook should be doing more to prevent the hateful speech, focusing as much on global human rights as on its business...Across the world, Facebook and other social platforms are being questioned about their expanding role and responsibilities as publishers of information. In Myanmar... the stakes of what appears on the site are exceptionally high...After the 2016 United States elections, Facebook rolled out a set of guidelines to help users identify fake news and misinformation. The company does not regularly remove misinformation itself... [C]ompany has worked with local partners to introduce a Burmese-language illustrated copy of its platform standards and will “continue to refine” its practices, said a spokeswoman, Clare Wareing, in an emailed statement.

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23 October 2017

Australia: Woodside's chief executive to assess ramifications for company of abuses against Rohingya in Myanmar

Author: Paul Garvey & Matt Chambers, The Australian

"Woodside CEO Coleman to assess Myanmar Rohingya crisis", 20 October 2017

Woodside Petroleum chief executive Peter Coleman will travel to personally assess the humanitarian crisis affecting the nation, amid warnings from human rights experts that the company risks ethical and even legal damage from continuing to invest there.

Woodside was among the first international oil and gas companies to enter the highly prospective nation after the country began to open its doors to the rest of the world.

But the nation’s social and economic emergence has been threatened by the crisis surrounding Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya ethnic minority. There have been allegations of severe human rights abuses and even genocide against the Rohingya, with several governments and aid groups condemning the actions of the military and regime.

The bulk of the company’s ground sits off the coast of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where most of the alleged atrocities have taken place, and any pipeline connecting Woodside’s discoveries with Asian markets would almost certainly have to cross through the region...

Mr Coleman said the company was watching closely to see how Myanmar worked through the “complex” situation.

Keren Adams, the director of advocacy at the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre, said Woodside was “walking a very fine line in terms of its human rights obligations”...

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23 October 2017

Stakeholders press energy companies doing business with Myanmar to address Rohingya crisis

Author: Simon Billenness, Executive Director of the International Campaign for the Rohingya (USA)

A group of investors and stakeholders has called on energy companies doing business in Myanmar/Burma to reassess their dealings in light of that country’s brutal military crackdown on its ethnic Rohingya minority... [L]etters signed by 31 investor organizations representing more than $53 billion in assets...were sent to executives at six oil and gas companies...Commodities make up a majority of Myanmar’s exports and are often the armed forces... International Campaign for the Rohingya said, "...The oil companies in Burma must take affirmative steps to avoid complicity in these crimes against humanity.” In addition to citing the moral obligation..., the letters express concern about the potential risks to investments in the country as well as harm to corporate reputations...The letter to oil companies states...:“We believe that [your] operations and investment in Myanmar... creates a special obligation for [your company] to both express its concern over recent events and to reassess its relationship with the government in light of the...recent military actions against Rohingya communities. We cannot maintain ‘business as usual’ in a country where allegations of crimes against humanity and genocide persist.” Companies receiving the letter were China National Offshore Oil Corporation, Daewoo, PetroChina, Petronas, Total, and Woodside Petroleum.

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23 October 2017

Union of Myanmar Federation of Chamber of Commerce and Industry commits to helping government’s Rakhine development

Author: Mizzima - News from Myanmar (Myanmar)

The Union of Myanmar Federation of Chamber of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) announced October 21 that it was setting up Nine Private Sector Task Forces for taking part in the Myanmar government’s [Enterprise of Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement ad Development] UEHRD Project. Nine Task Forces formed will help the work of resettlement and development in Rakhine State in the sectors concerned with each task force by pooling all resources of the private sector, the UMFCCI said... The meeting...formed Nine Task Forces constituted with representatives of organizations and businesspersons, for complementing and taking part in the...project in selected nine sectors based on the expertise of the private sector. These task forces will do the immediate work of resettlement and providing humanitarian assistance in Rakhine State besides other short term and long term work of creating business and job opportunities, promotion of trade and attracting investments with detailed working plans and schemes...UEHRD...said, “We will prove that the private sector businesspersons can turn Rakhine State into a developed State amid the immense difficulties. We will invite all businesspersons and people across the country for taking part in this noble work through all sorts of platforms such as internet, and mobile phones and social media.” 

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3 October 2017

The Rohingya crisis: key roles for business

Author: Golda Benjamin & Bobbie Sta. Maria, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Half a million Rohingya refugees have fled Rakhine State in Myanmar in the last five weeks, leading to immense humanitarian challenges... in Bangladesh. [W]e have received... queries from members of the business community on their perceived role in this crisis. There have been a number of analyses on how the issue links to business, investments, and the economy...The final report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State led by...Kofi Annan included recommendations to prevent violence, maintain peace, and offer a sense of hope... Part of it mentions the resentment created by investments that often exclude local communities...Business...will next need to be mindful of potential future trafficking and hyper-exploitation from the camps, especially if current calls for safe repatriation of refugees are ignored... Leading...companies are already reflecting on their future role to help refugees, and contribute to resolving the conflict. [They] are looking at: supply chain approaches they can take to reduce marginalization and conflict, and their collective influence on government’s policy and practice. We highlight further their responsibility to ensure...their investments and supply chains in both Myanmar and Bangladesh prevent further marginalization and abuse of ethnic minorities, especially the Rohingya... [Refers to Leber Jeweler, Telenor, Unilever].

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20 September 2017

Myanmar: Unilever CEO tweets support for Rohingya in Myanmar

Author: Coconuts Yangon

"Unilever responds to rights campaign, commits to Rohingya protection", 1 Mar 2017

[R]ights activists concerned with the plight of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar launched a new strategy in an effort to end the repression characterized by the United Nations recently as tantamount to “ethnic cleansing”. They sought the help of business, and business responded...“After years of trying to get politicians to move on the Rohingya issue, it became clear that they were hesitant because Myanmar is important for investors. We, therefore, decided to instead reach out to companies directly"...On Sunday, Unilever tweeted its commitment as a company to the protection of the Rohingya. One activist noted: “When Paul Polman signed the letter of concern in December, he did it as an individual, not as a representative of Unilever; but with that tweet, Unilever unequivocally took the same stand.” Unilever’s tweet received more likes and retweets than almost anything the company has ever posted... [The] campaign noted that Unilever’s public alignment with the letter Polman signed is a significant step primarily because it commits the company to the protection of the Rohingya and sets a precedent for other companies to follow in using their influence to end atrocities...

Update [Sep 2017]: Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, posted another tweet in support of Rohingya on Sep 16 2017:

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