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”.