Does Nestlé care? Consumers want to know

Nestle says, “The impact that we have locally has the potential to be felt internationally; the ideas that you bring to life today could shape our future”.  I couldn’t agree more.  The impact Nestle has internationally can also, of course, be felt locally.

Nearly half the entire Rohingya population in Rakhine state has been either murdered or expelled in what is the 21st Century’s most glaring case of ethnic cleansing; it is increasingly difficult to not characterize what is happening in Myanmar as a full-blown genocide.  Nestle is one of the biggest companies in the world, even without its significant investment in Myanmar, they possess the kind of global influence that could potentially persuade the regime in Yangon to not only halt its pogroms in Rakhine, but indeed, to reverse its policy of repression against the Rohingya.

It is absolutely essential for the most powerful players in the international business community to back up the United Nations’ and the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State’s recommendations for resolving the crisis in Myanmar if they are ever going to bear fruit.  We cannot talk about powerful players without talking about Nestle, the largest foods company on Earth.  Any word from Nestle weighs heavily on the scales of policy-making, not only in Myanmar, but around the world.  Their silence is just as significant.

When major companies like Nestle do not take a stand against genocide, it is interpreted by the regime as permission; and it will be interpreted by consumers as either indifference at best, or actual complicity and collusion at worst.

Nestle has been admirably responsive to public grievances in many instances, such as the recent campaign by Greenpeace over the company’s use of palm oil from Sinar Mas.  They took many steps to address the concerns; steps that no doubt came at a considerable expense for Nestle.

Condemning genocide costs nothing.

What Nestle stands to lose by speaking out is negligible compared to what they stand to lose by their silence; and indeed, to what they stand to gain by taking a stand.  The people in the Southeast Asian region care tremendously about the Rohingya issue; tempers are running high as the pogroms continue while the international community seems to remain largely ineffectual.  A “Day of Anger” has been announced for November 5th, with protests planned in Malaysia and around the world.  But directionless outrage and frustration can lead to very negative and even destructive consequences.  It is time for the global business leaders like Nestle to take the lead in reining in the Myanmar regime by letting them know that multinational corporations and foreign investors do not approve, and will not tolerate the crimes against humanity being perpetrated against the Rohingya.

It is time for Nestle and other leading companies to align themselves with the call for peace and justice in Rakhine.  It is time for Nestle to declare that “We Are All Rohingya Now”.

The necessity of the moral corporate voice

From a Public Relations perspective, I can’t think of an easier way for a company to show its humanity than by condemning genocide and endorsing recommendations for a peaceful resolution in Myanmar.

The United Nations, the official body representing international consensus has already characterised the situation in Rakhine state as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing“.  The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, which issued a detailed report about the repression and violence against the Rohingya and offered solutions, was a project of the Kofi Annan Foundation, headed by the former UN Secretary General who initiated the Global Compact with big business in the year 2000.  There is no controversy in the international community about the nature of what is happening in Myanmar, and companies risk nothing by taking a stand consistent with the position of the UN.  On the contrary, reluctance to do so sends a very negative message making people wonder if companies invested in Myanmar even care that crimes against humanity are being committed; or worse, if they might actually approve of the genocide.

Western multinationals may feel that their foothold in Myanmar is delicate, and that they are at a disadvantage compared to China.  They may believe that if they take a stand on the Rohingya issue, Myanmar will simply rush into the arms of Chinese companies and investors, and they will lose their position in the country.  But the truth is, if they do not take a stand, they run the risk of alienating the broader market of 600 million consumers in Southeast Asia, not to mention people worldwide who are concerned about this issue.

Myanmar is extremely interested in diversifying the sources of its Foreign Direct Investment, and by definition, investment by Western companies brings more value than investment by Chinese companies.  The value of investment is not always derived from the amount of capital, but by the importance of the source of the capital.  And Myanmar is struggling to move away from dependence on Chinese financial support.  Furthermore, the core cause of the violence in Rakhine state is based on the economic ambitions of the government, with a view to improving its position for collaboration with foreign investors and corporations.  A public statement against the violence, and calling for implementation of UN recommendations would be far more likely to result in a cessation of ethnic cleansing than a rejection of Western companies.

Companies like Unilever, Nestle, Shell Oil, Chevron, and so forth, are the targets of almost continuous negative campaigns by human rights and environmental activists who portray them as ruthless, inhuman and corrupt entities that care more about profits than people.  Obviously, this is unfair and simplistic and overlooks the many positive initiatives these companies undertake for the populations where they operate.  But keeping silent about something as horrific as genocide will make it very difficult for any average person to view a company as socially responsible no matter what else it does to prove that it cares about humanity. And, of course, this negative perception will have detrimental market implications.

If taking a stand against crimes against humanity is not the lowest standard of corporate social responsibility, I don’t know what is.  It is becoming more urgent by the day for the international business community to align itself with the consensus of the broader international community and let their customers know where they stand before their silence is interpreted as either indifference or complicity.

We sincerely urge all major corporate investors in Myanmar, and even those who have not entered Myanmar, to join with their consumer constituents, with the United Nations, and with companies like Unilever and Telenor, to publicly declare “We Are All Rohingya Now”.

Teach a man to fish, then kill him

Something to consider…

Oil and gas companies are increasingly interested in exploration off the coast of Rakhine state. Companies like Woodside Energy, Shell, Total, and Chevron are already operating several fields offshore, and are confident that more discoveries are likely following the biggest natural gas discovery of 2016 off the coast of Rakhine.

These operations, and the expansion of these operations will profoundly impact the fishing industry in Rakhine, which disproportionately employs Rohingya. As found in a study on small scale fishing in Myanmar:

“…Rohingya made up a disproportionate numbers of fishermen since Rakhine Buddhists have historically shunned fishing businesses…”

Typically, major oil and gas companies, though not legally obliged to do so, initiate development projects in affected communities to offset the harm caused to their livelihoods.  All of the aforementioned companies have extensive community engagement programs designed to ensure as much as possible that their operations do not negatively impact the livelihoods of affected communities.

At present, as we know, the Rohingya are being ethnically cleansed from Rakhine state; which is to say, the affected community is being erased. This means that any development projects initiated by oil and gas companies will instead exclusively benefit the Rakhine; although they are not, by and large, engaged in the fishing sector.

This can be seen both as a manifestation of the government’s ethnic hatred for the Rohingya (wanting to ensure that their fellow Buddhists alone reap the benefits of development), and as a management tool for placating the Rakhine with material opportunities to abate their hostility over the exploitation of their state’s resources.

http://www.osjonline.com/news/view,comment-deepwater-myanmar-could-create-longterm-growth_49282.htm

The role of history in the Rohingya genocide

What this article provide you with:

A very good historical background on the ethnic and religious enmities in Myanmar

What this article does not do:

Refute the argument that economic interests are driving the ethnic cleansing in Rakhine state.

There is nothing reductionist about explaining the conflict in terms of economics. If you think it IS reductionist, then you do not understand the argument. Perhaps it is a mater of confusing the modalities of the conflict with the objectives.

The fact that this long history of ethnic and religious tension and suspicion exists is precisely why the strategy of redirecting the hostility of the Rakhine away from the central government and towards the Rohingya was chosen, and why it is working.

Is it necessary to ethnically cleanse Rakhine state of Rohingya in order to pursue economic interests? That is not the right question. A more apt question would be; is it useful to distract and divert the Rakhine with their long despised nemesis while the army seizes land and resources over which just last year the Rakhine people en masse demanded to have local control?

Is it “Marxist” to recognise that the government needs to establish absolute control over Rakhine’s resources as an existential imperative? When 60% of FDI is in the oil and gas sector, which is entirely located in Rakhine, is it reductionist to suggest that the primary objective of the regime is secure control of the land, the access, and the complete domination over that sector? Can Yangon afford an uprising by the Rakhine? This is not Marxist or reductionist thinking, it is real politik. This is a practical necessity for the central government, and pursuing such domination outright would very likely lead to an unmanageable conflict with the ethnic majority of the state; something that would be extremely costly in more ways than we can mention. Without the Rohingya conflict, the government would have no pretext; and selecting the most viable pretext in this case was quite straightforward, again, because of the history elaborated in this article.

Is it possible that hateful ideology has, or may, run amok , and the government could lose sight of its prime economic objective, and become fixated on a mission to do nothing else but exterminate the Rohingya? Of course. People certainly can go mad with ideology to the point of self-destructiveness; the Nazis certainly did. And, yes, the massacres are being carried out within the framework of hate; the Rohingya were selected as a diversion because, yes, the government views them as sub-human and eligible for genocide; and they likely derive satisfaction from killing and expelling them. But none of that contradicts with the fact that the primary motive in the conflict is vital economic interest.

http://www.newmandala.org/better-political-economy-rohingya-crisis/

Corporate Social Responsibility and Genocide

On August 25th, 2017, the government of Myanmar launched a large-scale military operation in Rakhine state ostensibly to combat a small group of Rohingya militants.  By all accounts, however, the Rohingya civilian population has suffered what amounts to collective punishment as the army pursues a scorched earth policy throughout the area; burning entire villages, and displacing hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and some estimates of the casualties run as high as 3,000 civilian deaths.

Collective punishment is a war crime, and many observers characterize Myanmar’s severe persecution of the Rohingya as ethnic cleansing.  The Rohingya population in Rakhine state has been reduced by approximately 30% in the less than 3 weeks since the military operation began.  It is difficult to not view what is happening as full-blown genocide.

Yet, multinational corporations and foreign investors from all over the world continue to flock to Myanmar hoping to benefit from that country’s untapped resources, many of which are found in precisely the same areas where military atrocities are taking place.  Indeed, the government in Yangon announced plans to build a Special Economic Zone in Maungdaw township, even as Rohingya inhabitants were being driven out, and their homes being burnt to the ground.

Does the international business community approve of what is happening in Rakhine?  Are they satisfied to extract oil and gas and minerals from Rakhine’s soil covered in Rohingya blood? Will they develop tourist resorts tomorrow on the beaches where today thousands of displaced families are huddled fearing for their lives?  Can they, in good conscience, erect their factories and warehouses and office buildings on land from which innocent Rohingya have been driven out by horrific violence? When every dollar of investment they pump into Myanmar inoculates the government from censure, how can the international business community avoid the charge of willing complicity with genocide?

We call upon major corporations and investors to display moral leadership in this time of urgent need; to refuse partnership with a government actively engaged in ethnic cleansing, and to use their considerable influence to turn the regime away from the path of genocide.

We say to those companies investing in Myanmar: Do not let your brand become associated with war crimes; do not let your company become complicit in crimes against humanity; do not let your shareholders become accomplices to genocide.    In Myanmar today, the price of profitability is innocent blood, and no business should be willing to pay that price.

Repressive “Peace” and Investor Security in Myanmar

The situation in Rakhine state is deteriorating rapidly and all signs indicate that a new pogrom against the Rohingya is imminent.  United Nations fact-finding investigators have been banned from the country.  The army has deployed heavy artillery, armored cars and helicopters, for “clearance operations”  in Northern Rakhine, and there is speculation that Buddhist civilians will be organized into militias with arms and training by the military.  Already in the Western township  of Zay Di Pyin Rohingya have been blocked by Buddhist civilians from leaving the village.  There is every reason to fear that ethnic cleansing operations this time around will be broader and more brutal than ever before.

Meanwhile, the World Bank has awarded Myanmar $200 million credit, the first allotment of which has already been delivered.  The World Bank supports the iron-fisted approach of the central government towards ethnic conflicts throughout Myanmar, including in Rakhine state, saying “The current peace process represents the best chance for peace in a generation”.  The Bank has also “initiated an active dialogue with the Rakhine State authorities” in particular in the context of supporting the “peace process”.

It should be obvious, but it is worth stating that “peace” is a relatively empty term which can be applied to either a conflict-free and tranquil society or to a society where repression is so severe, and conflict so one-sided, that unrest is literally impossible.  Insofar as they regard Myanmar’s brutal military crackdowns as a “peace process”, it is clear which definition most appeals to the World Bank.

By July, over a thousand foreign companies had invested roughly $74 million dollars in Myanmar this year, about 60% of this was in the energy sector; a sector to which control of Rakhine state is vital.

Aside from the Shwe pipeline which will allow oil from the Gulf States and Africa to be pumped to China, bypassing a slower shipping route through the Strait of Malacca; there are significant natural gas wells situated off the coast of Sittwe; and the biggest natural gas discovery of 2016 was found a bit further north.  Multinational energy companies like Shell and Woodside are currently competing to grab acreage in Rakhine.  One cannot help but notice the connection between this scramble for land and the army’s “clearance operations”.

Stirring ethnic and religious violence in Rakhine sets the groundwork for the army occupying the state under the pretext of providing security for the population, when in fact, they are providing security for investors, and for the central government againstthe population.

Brutal Profitability in Myanmar

The problem in Arakan for the regime is the Rakhine, not the Rohingya. The Rohingya are what the regime is using to divert the growing hostility of the Rakhine; the majority population in a resource-rich state with the second-longest coastline in the country, who want to control their own natural resources, and who have a history of secessionist ambitions.

By redirecting their discontent away from the government, and towards the helpless Rohingya, the regime is delaying the inevitable uprising of the Rakhine Buddhists and creating a scenario in which full military occupation of the state can be eventually justified. The purpose of such an occupation, of course, will be to secure Yangon’s control of the resources in Arakan state, though the pretext will be to clamp down on ethnic and religious violence.

The same scenario should be expected in Kachin state as well.

An iron-fisted military policy is almost a requirement of Neoliberalism in the developing world.  Maintaining centralised control of all of a country’s resources is essential for the efficient collaboration between local and global elites; it is the only way the local ruling class can retain its power.  Under Neoliberalism, the level of poverty, exploitation and deprivation  is simply too inhumane to not result in popular opposition. Instituting a harsh military presence, particularly in economically valuable states, can preemptively subdue any potential uprising.  This is what is happening in Arakan state, and elsewhere.

According to the World Bank, Arakan is the poorest state in Myanmar, while it holds the country’s most sought after resource: natural gas. This is absolutely a recipe for conflict; indeed, for revolution.  It is crucial for the regime to establish total control; and the more brutally this control is established, the more confident investors will be.  The regime, in the mercenary mindset of global capitalism, is doing everything right.  Atrocities and human rights violations and military repression make investment in Myanmar more attractive, not less.

The horror in Arakan is fundamentally driven by economics; the ethnic and religious bigotries manifested by the conflict are simply modalities   This being the case, we are all, as consumers and workers, in a position to influence the course of this crisis.  While Western companies are still new to Myanmar, their presence is increasing, and the US alone is hoping to double its investment over the next 3 years.  Multinational corporations are managing the trajectory of policy in Myanmar, and these corporations are everywhere; they are wherever we are and we are wherever they are; we absolutely have the power to influence them.

If, through our activism and consumer choices, we express our disapproval for these companies’ collaboration with the regime in Yangon because of the regime’s brutality, CEOs and shareholders from across every industrial sector will reprimand the regime and force a policy change. As long as brutality is profitable, it will continue.  Making it unprofitable, therefore, is the task at hand; and no one can make it unprofitable except us.