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”.

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/

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.

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.