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”.

Using corporate logic for social change

It is not really viable for society to impose accountability on some powerful institutions and not on others.  That is the basic issue with corporations.  But the onus of responsibility for imposing accountability, of course, is not going to fall upon the institutions themselves; it has to be undertaken by the people.  Just as it is the case with democratic government, if you want to impose accountability, you have to turn up at the polling booth and vote; we also have to actually utilize the existing mechanisms for imposing accountability on institutions of private power.  For corporations, that means utilizing market forces; it means, in fact, becoming a force in the market.

The completely transparent and binary decision-making process of companies makes this very straightforward. They are concerned with whether a policy is profitable or unprofitable, and no one, ultimately, determines whether a policy will be profitable or unprofitable except consumers.  This is entirely our responsibility. Companies learn from our behaviour and they follow whatever the market tells them; they have to.

It is possible for us to create a new dynamic whereby companies will actually compete with each other to be more responsive to public demands on how they use their political influence, if the market rewards them for this responsiveness; if it is actually more profitable to be responsive, and if ignoring demands leads to financial loss.

Major corporations have no problem whatsoever pressuring governments for legislative changes if they believe laws are detrimental to their business interests; they are not the least bit reluctant to push for laws and policies that they believe will make it easier and more profitable for their companies to operate; and more often than not, they get what they want.  So there is no question about whether or not corporations have the power to affect change when their own interests are at stake; they do it all the time.  Our challenge is to create a scenario in which what we want companies to do for us is also something they will want to do because it benefits them.

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.

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.

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.