Corporate giants affirming support for Rohingya

An ongoing military operation in Rakhine state which the government claims targets militants, but which has caused at least 30% of the Rohingya civilian population to flee the country, and left possibly thousands dead; is raising ethical questions about foreign investment in a country accused of committing genocide.

The #WeAreAllRohingyaNow Campaign, an initiative by independent activists around the world, has been highlighting the role of the international business community in contributing to a solution to the crisis. “If you compare the world news coverage of Myanmar and the reporting in the business press, you would think they are talking about two different countries,” says Jamila Hanan, the campaign’s director.  “On the one hand, the United Nations is saying that Myanmar presents a textbook case of ethnic cleansing, and the Security Council is condemning the scorched-earth policy of the army; and on the other hand, Myanmar is being touted as a great destination for foreign investment, with no reluctance being expressed about mass killings, gang-rapes, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Investors are increasingly going to have to take a stand on this issue unless they want their brands to be associated with crimes against humanity.”

#WeAreAllRohingyaNow has been reaching out to multinational corporations invested in Myanmar and urging them to publicly commit to the protection of the Rohingya, often referred to as “the world’s most persecuted minority”, and to endorse United Nations recommendations for resolving the crisis.

The first company to respond to their call was Unilever, the third largest consumer goods company in the world.  “CEO Paul Polman replied to us immediately, and after a brief social media campaign, Unilever did indeed publicly affirm its support for the Rohingya,” Hanan explains.  “After a much longer campaign, we were able to help Norwegian telecom company Telenor, also a major investor in Myanmar, understand the urgency of the issue, and they too pledged their commitment to the human rights of the Rohingya”.

The campaign’s strategy seems to be turning the tide in favour of a business-led effort to end the genocide.  On Saturday, Paul Polman joined the #WeAreAllRohingyaNow hashtag on Twitter, in a tweet emphasizing the importance of reviving empathy in international relations, and presumably, in business as well.  As major corporations are beginning to doubt the wisdom of doing business amidst ongoing ethnic cleansing, even governments are becoming more sensitive about pursuing trade agreements with Myanmar.  On 14 September, the European Parliament Committee on International Trade decided to postpone indefinitely its visit to Myanmar due to the deteriorating human rights situation in the country. The Chair of the Committee, Bernd Lange said in a press statement “It is clear that under these conditions, the ratification of an investment agreement with Myanmar is not possible”.

“Rakhine state holds much of Myanmar’s untapped resources,” says Shahid Bolsen, the Campaign’s chief strategist.  “It is going to be extremely difficult for investors to benefit from the development of those resources without being regarded as complicit in the crimes of the army; particularly since there are development plans in precisely those areas where massacres are taking place.  Furthermore, even companies that have no direct interests in Rakhine state are, nevertheless, starting to be viewed as enablers of the army’s crackdown because the regime is facing no economic backlash from investors, which seems to embolden the government to defy international criticism”.

The government in Yangon still believes that its iron-fisted policy in Rakhine state will not alienate investors.  U Aung Naing Oo, director-general of Directorate of Investment and Company Administration said on Friday, “Ongoing conflicts do not have an impact on foreign investment, so we have nothing to worry about”.  However, his further contention that businessmen “care more about their business opportunities” than about human rights violations and political repression, seems to run counter to what was expressed by Paul Polman when he tweeted, “We have forgotten how to rescue each other. Human empathy is key to our survival”

The #WeAreAllRohingyaNow Campaign has highlighted the role of the private sector in resolving the crisis in Myanmar, and more and more companies are likely to follow the moral leadership of giants like Unilever and Telenor to use their considerable influence to stop what many observers are calling the 21st Century’s worst full-blown genocide.

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