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”.

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.

#DumpDigi to stand with the Rohingya

The #WeAreAllRohingnyaNow Campaign has begun calling upon Malaysian customers of Digi to switch their service provider to any of the local companies in protest against Digi’s parent company Telenor over their stubborn silence on the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, where Telenor is heavily invested.

The campaign has been reaching out to the Norwegian telecom company for months, encouraging them to follow the example of Unilever (which has also invested millions of dollars in Myanmar), to issue a public statement in support of UN recommendations for resolving the crisis, and calling for the protection of the Muslim minority. Unilever pledged a firm commitment and suffered no negative repercussions to its investments in the country, but Telenor has not only refused to take a public stand, but has rather adopted policies that seem to align with the divisive agenda of the regime; including an educational programme offered exclusively through Buddhist monastic schools.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees have fled to Malaysia and the issue of Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing resonates deeply with the majority Muslim population, who perceive the persecution as being motivated by religious bigotry.

Telenor’s Digi subsidiary in Malaysia has become one of the main telecom providers in the country over the past several years, and many customers are unaware that Digi belongs to Telenor, and do not know about Telenor’s investments in Myanmar; so they have yet to make the connection between Digi and the ongoing strife in Rakhine state, and Telenor’s potential capacity to intervene. And the company surely hopes that Malaysians will never make that connection.

Telenor CEO Sigve Brekke himself acknowledged his company’s power recently when he shared an article on Twitter about the enormous impact of ‘Myanmar’s telecom revolution’, yet Telenor continues to refuse to utter a single word about the internationally recognized human rights abuses committed by the regime against the Rohingya.

If we want Telenor to change its stance on this issue, we have to change our stance on Telenor. Malaysian customers of Digi need to deliver a clear message to Telenor that they will choose a telecom company that reflects their values and that cares about the issues that matter to them. Local providers such as Maxis and Celcom do not have investments in Myanmar, and customers can opt for either of them, or indeed, for any of the other Digi competitors in Malaysia that do not seek profit through indifference to the suffering of their fellow Muslims.

Stand with the Rohingya and #DumpDigi today!

In Pursuit of Long-term Victory

In the real world, most opponents in a fight are mismatched; the powerful against the powerless. Therefore, you should not engage them on their terms, but on yours. Fight them according to their weaknesses, not their strengths. And, of course, do whatever you can to gain leverage to amplify whatever strength you have.

This is the basic concept behind the strategy of the #WeAreAllRohingyaNow Campaign. The weak point for the Myanmar government is the economy; their need for foreign investment and development; and it is through multinational corporations that we can leverage the strength we have to ultimately bring an end to the genocide and to restore the citizenship of the Rohingya. We do not have the power to go toe-to-toe with the Myanmar army, or the government (and indeed, this would also mean going to-to-toe with most of the population); that is a losing strategy. Corporations have the power to do this, however, and we do have power over corporations; if we choose to use it.

Some have asked “what are you going to do if companies refuse to comply with your demands? Are you going to do more than merely ‘tease’ them periodically on social media?”

Well, first of all, it has to be understood that companies spend a considerable amount of money to promote their images on social media. This has become an essential element in their overall business strategy, and it can literally affect their share values if investors perceive that a company is facing any potential public backlash. So, “teasing” is a naively dismissive word for social media campaigning.

As we have stated previously during our outreach to Unilever, #WeAreAllRohingyaNow is adhering to a long-term, multi-stage strategy. We are committed to keeping our campaigns positive and constructive. We fully believe that taking a moral stand against the Rohingya genocide is truly the best thing any company can do, both in the region, and globally, for their own business interests, and we sincerely want to help companies realise this.

We have cultivated, are cultivating, and are in the process of organising grassroots support among regional consumers, as well as among international activists and organisations; and we have the capacity to escalate our outreach with organised consumer activity, either through purchasing or suspension of purchasing campaigns; and we do not rule out mobilising direct action if or when it becomes necessary.

The first stage of this effort is the recruitment of public support from major multinationals (ideally, those with significant investments in Myanmar and the region); this will have a ripple effect throughout the international business community, media coverage, public perceptions of the , and influence even the policies of state actors. From that point, we can move to a more proactive campaign, once the issue has the public backing of major institutions of private power; and we have plans in place for this.

We ask all those who are concerned about the plight of the Rohingya to lend their support to this gradual, but insha’Allah, effective strategy, and to persevere patiently and persistently to ensure that each stage of the campaign will be successful. The more people participate, the faster we can get results.