Following the February military coup that overthrew a democratically elected government in Myanmar, companies are being asked to step up and use their influence to urge the military to return the country to its path to democracy. The coup is coupled with a severe crackdown on civil rights and fundamental freedoms including arrests and internet shutdowns, which is eroding civic space and undermining the necessary work of journalists, civil society organisations, labour organisers, human rights and environmental defenders, and others. Each passing day is a risk for the people of Myanmar, as the military further entrenches itself. The severity of the crisis makes it particularly crucial for companies to act: this can include behind the scenes conversations with diplomats, conveying strong messaging to the military, taking collective action as sectors and across-sectors, and supporting intense short term political and economic sanctions to prompt the military to step away from this coup. In turn, the private sector will have a role to play in insisting that a reinstalled democratic leadership embrace the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court for the genocide of the Rohingya.
There is strong evidence for the important role that free and open civic space plays in creating a positive operating environment for business, but the severity of ongoing events and the extreme vulnerability of Myanmar’s nascent democracy mean that companies operating in, sourcing from and investing in the country need to take strong action and use leverage in order to help ensure the most basic of human rights are guaranteed in Myanmar.
We have collected some of the recent calls to action to the business community and summarise briefly actions that companies can and should take to respect human rights in Myanmar. (Disclaimer: Having been an international lawyer for the Burmese opposition with global pro bono firm PILPG seeking to dislodge the military regime pre-2011, Anna Triponel’s perspective here is in her capacity as PILPG Senior Peace Fellow and based on international law considerations. If you’d like to discuss how this intersects with companies’ responsibility under the UNGPs, feel free to reach out.)
- Actively stand behind government actions to dislodge the military and, in turn, push for accountability. In a blog post for the London School of Economics (LSE) Business Review, Responding to the Military Coup in Myanmar: What Business Can and Should Do, Anna Triponel and Paul R. Williams:
- “argue that companies must act boldly as a collective; failure to do so will be detrimental to their bottom line in the longer term. Corporations will be in the uncomfortable position of profiting during a time of collective political and human misery. The authors argue that, as companies decide to do business in a context such as this, they become part of the panoply of international actors and institutions that have a responsibility to seek to enhance human rights and rule-of-law standards.”
- The authors underscore that “there are significant limits to what the international system can achieve from afar without the private sector currently invested and operating in Myanmar choosing to play a supporting role. The lure of the private sector was decisive in opening the country up a decade ago, the services and resources provided by the private sector were decisive in enabling the military to carry out the genocidal attacks against the Rohingya in 2017 at the scale they were carried out at, and now the private sector can be a decisive driver in helping steer the course of history for Myanmar and its people.”
- In light of this, business should be looking to play a role in dislodging the military regime, which can include behind the scenes conversations with diplomats, conveying strong messaging to the military, taking collective action as sectors and across-sectors, and supporting intense short term political and economic sanctions to prompt the military to step away from this coup. In turn, the private sector will have a role to play in insisting that a reinstalled democratic leadership embrace the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court for the genocide of the Rohingya.
- Advocate for and respect the rights of civil society actors, such as trade unions, journalists and NGOs. The International Trade Union Confederation issued a call to action for all sectors, including business: “International companies should provide support to workers where operations are curtailed and give support and protection to workers protesting the coup.”
- Use the company’s influence to lobbying government to take urgent action to protect people in Myanmar. For example, Rohingya rights organisation International Campaign for the Rohingya (ICR) points out that pressure from citizens and civil society spurred the Biden Administration in the U.S. into imposing sanctions on Myanmar’s military leaders. Adding the business voice will amplify calls for action by governments and intergovernmental organisations. (ICR also shares a list of immediate actions that individuals can take to exercise their own voice on this issue).
- Use the company’s voice, alongside others, to condemn the coup. For example, the American Chamber of Commerce in Myanmar (AMCHAM Myanmar) made a statement noting their “hope that these ongoing events are only a temporary setback in important reforms.” The statement “unequivocally calls upon all engaged stakeholders to respect the rule of law; avoid arbitrary detentions; and allow for unrestricted access to information across all telecommunications systems available in Myanmar to support the free flow of information.”
- Examine the company’s supply chain for links to the Myanmar military. A recent report by NGO Justice for Myanmar suggesting that the coup was driven by primarily economic interests points to the outsize influence that the private sector can have in pressuring military leadership to reverse course. There are renewed calls for companies to ensure that they are not contributing or linked to human rights violations by the military through their business operations and relationships. In response to the coup some multinational companies have made the decision to exit their investments in Myanmar, including Japanese beverage company Kirin Holdings. (For more context, see Amnesty International’s September 2020 investigation on global companies linked to the Burmese military through its conglomerate Myanma Economic Holdings Public Company Ltd (MEHL)).
“There is no such thing as a “greenfield” country. Choosing to operate in a country comes with the need to enhance understanding of its complex domestic legal and political environment. We are not in the U.S., where a recent attempted coup could have led to dire consequences, but the checks and balances foreseen by the U.S. constitution kicked in. We don’t have such checks and balances in all countries where companies do business. Neither is there a “greenfield” legal and political environment. Though Myanmar appeared to be the next great democratic and economic hope in the region, it also had a long history of military rule and undemocratic practices. And later, in 2017, a genocide. As multinational corporations decide to do business in a context such as this, they become part of the panoply of international actors and institutions that have a responsibility to embrace and seek to enhance human rights and rule-of-law standards. Otherwise, they face the worst-case scenario we see playing out in Myanmar today, where a military coup goes unchecked and the country’s political and economic future is in jeopardy.”
Anna Triponel and Paul R. Williams, LSE Business Review, Responding to the Military Coup in Myanmar: What Business Can and Should Do (9 February 2021)