Saturday 17 October 2020
Wednesday 23 September 2020
An Amnesty International investigation has exposed how international businesses are linked to the financing of Myanmar's military, including many units directly responsible for crimes under international law and other human rights violations. Leaked official documents analyzed by Amnesty International reveal how Myanmar's military receives huge revenues from shares in Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), a secretive conglomerate whose activities include the mining, beer, tobacco, garment manufacturing and banking sectors. MEHL has partnerships with a range of local and foreign businesses including Japanese beer multinational Kirin and South Korean steel giant POSCO.
The perpetrators of some of the worst human rights violations in Myanmar's recent history are among those who benefit from MEHL's business activitiesMark Dummett, Head of Business, Security and Human Rights
MEHL shareholder records show that military units, including combat divisions, own about one third of MEHL's shares. Records also detail links between MEHL and the Western Command, which oversees operations in Rakhine State, including atrocities committed against the Rohingya population and other ethnic minorities. The report also provides information on the considerable annual dividend payments that shareholders have received since MEHL's establishment in 1990.
"These documents provide new evidence of how the Myanmar military benefits from MEHL's vast business empire and make clear that the military and MEHL are inextricably linked. This is not a case of MEHL unwittingly financing human rights violations – its entire board is composed of high-level military figures," said Mark Dummett, Head of Business, Security and Human Rights at Amnesty International.
"The perpetrators of some of the worst human rights violations in Myanmar's recent history are among those who benefit from MEHL's business activities – for example, military chief Min Aung Hlaing owned 5,000 shares in MEHL in 2011. In the face of this incontrovertible evidence, businesses who currently partner with MEHL must end these relationships responsibly."
Global business links
Amnesty International's research demonstrates that a direct link exists between MEHL's business partners and human rights violations. MEHL works in collaboration with these business partners in establishing joint ventures or profit-sharing agreements in Myanmar; when profits are derived from these operations, they are provided to MEHL as shareholder. MEHL then disburses dividends to its own shareholders.
Amnesty wrote to eight companies who operate jointly with MEHL in Myanmar. These are:
Ever Flow River Group Public Co., Ltd, (EFR), a Myanmar logistics company; Kanbawza Group (KBZ), a Myanmar conglomerate with jade and ruby mining operations; Kirin Holdings, a Japanese beverage company; INNO Group, a South Korean property developer; Pan-Pacific, a South Korean manufacturer and exporter of clothing; POSCO, a South Korean steelmaker; RMH Singapore, a Singaporean fund with a tobacco operation in Myanmar; and Wanbao Mining, a Chinese metal mining company.
In its reply, Pan-Pacific announced that it is terminating its business partnership with MEHL in the wake of Amnesty's findings and the publication of the UN Fact-Finding Mission report of 2019. KBZ and Kirin have stated they are reviewing their relationship with MEHL, while others did not provide such commitments or did not respond at all. Full copies of responses can be found in Annex I of the report.
These companies all partner with MEHL in operations inside Myanmar. However, a few have global reach. Kirin is one of the world's largest beer brewers, and its drinks, such as Kirin, San Miguel, Lion and Fat Tire are sold in bars and shops all over the world. POSCO, one of the world's largest steelmakers, produces a range of steel products for the automobile, construction, and shipbuilding industries.
Shedding light on a secretive relationship
MEHL was founded by Myanmar's military regime in 1990 and is still directed and owned by serving and retired personnel. This link clearly provides the military with substantial revenue on top of its official budget, but the exact nature of the relationship is shrouded in secrecy.
This is not a case of MEHL unwittingly financing human rights violations – its entire board is composed of high-level military figuresMark Dummett
Amnesty International has seen two documents which expose new details about how MEHL finances the military. The first is a filing which was lodged by MEHL with Myanmar's Directorate of Investment and Company Administration (DICA) in January 2020. It states that MEHL is owned by 381,636 individual shareholders, who are all serving or retired military personnel, and 1,803 "institutional" shareholders, consisting of "regional commands, divisions, battalions, troops, war veteran associations".
The second document is a copy of a confidential MEHL shareholder report from fiscal year 2010-11. As well as providing information on the identities of MEHL's shareholders, it documents the considerable annual dividend payments that shareholders received between 1990 and 2011.
The shareholder report was shared with Amnesty International by Justice for Myanmar, an activist group that campaigns for justice and accountability for the people of Myanmar. The contents of the report are being made public on the group's website, access to which was blocked in Myanmar on 1 September by the Ministry of Transport and Communications. According to a spokesman for the ministry, the website spreads "fake news". Justice For Myanmar has responded stating this is a bid to silence critical voices.
The total amount of dividend payments made in this 20-year period to all shareholders was more than 107 billion Myanmar kyat (107,869,519,830) – about 18 billion US dollars according to the official exchange rate. Of this amount, MEHL transferred 95 billion kyat – the equivalent of approximately 16 billion US dollars – to military units.
Both documents confirm that MEHL's shareholders include military units and high-ranking military officers directly implicated in crimes under international law and other serious human rights violations.
For example, the 2010-11 report lists as shareholders 95 separate military units that fall within the Western Command, the regional command covering and overseeing operations in Rakhine State. Together, they owned more than 4.3 million shares and received payments of more than 1.25 billion kyat (208 million USD) in 2010-11. The Western Command is also listed as an MEHL shareholder in the 2020 DICA document.
In providing this funding to military units, MEHL is boosting their resources and financing their operations which include crimes against humanity and war crimes.Yadanar Maung, Spokesperson of Justice For Myanmar.
The headquarters of battalions from the 33rd and 99th Light Infantry Divisions are also listed as shareholders. Amnesty International has documented these divisions' involvement in crimes against humanity against the Rohingya population, including massacres of women, men, and children, in Rakhine State, and war crimes in Kachin and northern Shan States.
The DICA report also names senior military commanders, including those who commanded troops involved in crimes under international law, as shareholders. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the Commander-in-Chief and head of the War Office, is listed as shareholder number 9252. In 2010-11 Min Aung Hlaing owned 5,000 shares and received a dividend payment of 1.5 million kyat (250,000 USD). The UN has called for Min Aung Hlaing, who oversaw the brutal campaign against the Rohingya in 2017, to be investigated and prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
"While outsiders can't know how these dividends are spent by military units, the size and regularity of these payments suggests that they cover operational costs," said Mark Dummett.
"In providing this funding to military units, MEHL is boosting their resources and financing their operations which include crimes against humanity and war crimes. Any company doing business with MEHL risks contributing to these violations and must take urgent steps to cut ties," added Yadanar Maung, Spokesperson of Justice For Myanmar.
MEHL's "patron group", which oversees the Board, includes the very officers responsible for crimes against humanity and other human rights violations, and therefore MEHL cannot be trusted to reform itself. What is more, MEHL has shown no willingness to engage transparently with its business partners to demonstrate that it can reform its structure.
"MEHL's business partners have a responsibility to respect human rights and seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts linked to their operations. Given MEHL's unwillingness to reform its structure, its business partners must assess their relationship to MEHL and responsibly disengage. This means taking into account credible assessments of potential adverse social, economic, and human rights impacts and taking steps to mitigate them when disengaging," said Mark Dummett.
Amnesty International is calling on the Myanmar government to intervene to break the link between the armed forces and the economy. Part of this must be a thorough reform of the ownership and management of MEHL. The government should also establish a fund, using MEHL's profits, to compensate the victims of human rights violations committed by military units that are financed by or are shareholders of MEHL.
Canada and Netherlands ask parties to the Genocide Convention to support The Gambia’s efforts to address Myanmar rights violations.
Sunday 23 August 2020
Saturday 8 August 2020
As my colleagues Param-Preet Singh and Nadira Kourt laid out in the first two pieces of this forum, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) case concerning Myanmar's genocide of the Rohingya presents opportunities for Myanmar to finally dismantle the root causes of its longstanding persecution of Rohingya people and the international community to live up to its promise of "Never Again." In this final forum article, I look at what all the recent international attention paid to Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingya means for other ethnic minorities that have suffered atrocities at the hands of Myanmar's military (the Tatmadaw).
In some ways, international attention on the experiences of other ethnic groups in Myanmar is currently at a zenith. The intensifying conflict between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army – an armed group seeking increased autonomy for the multi-ethnic peoples in Rakhine state (referred to by the Arakan Army as "Arakan" state) – and the recent announcement of new military clearance operations by the Tatmadaw in ethnic Rakhine regions, have brought condemnation from American, Australian, British, and Canadian embassies in Myanmar.
In other ways, however, the attention of the international community remains fixated on the Rohingya. This is particularly true when discussing accountability efforts. Despite the flurry of activity on Myanmar at the ICJ, the International Criminal Court (ICC), foreign domestic courts (for example, Argentinian courts) and United Nations bodies, attention on the atrocities committed against a wider array of Myanmar's ethnic minorities has been wanting.
Myanmar's Other Atrocity Victim Groups
Since Myanmar's independence, numerous ethnically-based armed conflicts in the country's border regions have continued for decades. In engaging in these conflicts, the Tatmadaw has repeatedly and intentionally targeted civilians of the same ethnic background as that associated with whatever armed groups they were fighting at the time. Over the past several years, ethnic Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan civilians, and others, have been subjected to widespread attacks, indiscriminate killings, destruction and looting of property, food supplies, critical services, and places of worship.
Of special note is the Tatmadaw's repeated commission of sexual and gender-based violence against ethnic minority populations. While the specific context of each armed group's conflict with the Tatmadaw is distinct, the Tatmadaw's use of rape as a weapon of war has remained a universal tactic. Ethnic women's organizations have found time and again that widespread sexual violence is part of a deliberate and systematic pattern of targeting women and girls in their communities. Indeed, the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (FFM), found that sexual and gender-based violence was a "hallmark of the Tatmadaw's operations against ethnic minorities in Kachin, Shan and Rakhine states" and that "[t]hese violations, for most part perpetrated against ethnic women and girls, were used with the intent to intimidate, terrorise and punish the civilian population and as a tactic of war." Even Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's State Counselor and de facto leader, decried the targeting of ethnic minorities for sexual violence in 2011, stating that "[r]ape is used in my country as a weapon against those who only want to live in peace, who only want to assert their basic human rights. It is used as a weapon by armed forces to intimidate the ethnic nationalities and to divide our country."
The Focus on Crimes Against the Rohingya
Despite clear findings of grave human rights violations by local civil society, international fact-finders, and the de facto head of government, avenues for, or even conversations about, accountability for crimes against non-Rohingya ethnic minorities are virtually non-existent.
This is partly due to jurisdictional limitations and choices inherent in the ongoing investigations and cases, especially those at the ICJ and ICC. For example, the ICJ case is focused narrowly on the Rohingya because the facts indicate the Tatmadaw acted with an intent to destroy only the Rohingya – an essential element of the crime of genocide. Thus, while brutal and constituting crimes against humanity, the Tatmadaw's atrocities against other ethnic groups do not fit the definition of genocide, and thus these victims cannot avail themselves of the ICJ's jurisdiction, which is tied specifically to the Genocide Convention in the ongoing Gambia v. Myanmar litigation.
Similarly, the ICC investigation is focusing on crimes against the Rohingya because of the narrow jurisdiction available to that court – the crimes must be linked to the "clearance operations" in Rakhine state beginning in 2016 and, crucially, must have at least one element occurring in Bangladesh (the nation the vast majority of Rohingya victims have fled to). This is because unlike Myanmar, Bangladesh is a party to the ICC's Rome Statute, which confers the court with territorial jurisdiction. A universal jurisdiction case brought in Argentina by Rohingya human rights activists likewise targets members of the Tatmadaw and Myanmar government with alleged crimes against the Rohingya specifically.
The one exception to this narrow focus on the Rohingya is the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), created by the U.N. Human Rights Council. The IIMM's mandate empowers it to investigate the most serious international crimes occurring anywhere in Myanmar, and therefore against any ethnic group, since 2011. Yet, the IIMM's work has been overshadowed by the exclusive focus on the plight of the Rohingya at the ICJ, ICC, in Argentinian courts, and more generally in press coverage and U.N. statements.
The picture is not much different in international political spheres, where fear of alienating Myanmar, an emergent economic partner, has clipped the responses of countries and international organizations. Though to be fair, Australia, the EU, U.K. and United States have all levied targeted sanctions against certain Tatmadaw officials for their roles in atrocities against Shan, Kachin, and ethnic Rakhine victims – along with Rohingya ones. Relevant U.N. General Assembly and Human Rights Council resolutions similarly name human rights violations against multiple of Myanmar's ethnic groups. At the same time however, the Security Council has failed to take action outside the Rohingya context, with the infamous "Rosenthal Report" describing a systemic failure at the U.N. in addressing all atrocities by the Tatmadaw. Meanwhile, key economic partners, such as Japan, have turned a blind eye to the gaping hole in accountability for crimes against Myanmar's ethnic minorities.
This is not to take away from the uniquely brutal character and scale of crimes committed against the Rohingya. As pointed out above, unlike other groups, the Rohingya were targeted for destruction by the Tatmadaw. This, coupled with the displacement of nearly 1,000,000 Rohingya, calls for an urgent and comprehensive response. However, it is also important to acknowledge that all atrocity crimes, whatever their specific character, continue to be integral aspects of the Tatmadaw's standard operating procedures in operations against ethnic minorities. Justice and accountability for such crimes is essential.
Indeed, human rights defenders from Myanmar's ethnic communities have shown broad support for international efforts aimed at justice for the Rohingya. Karen, Shan, Mon, and Kachin groups have all put out statements of solidarity, each highlighting that until the Tatmadaw is held accountable, atrocities against ethnic communities will continue. Collectively, the statements paint a broader, much more comprehensive picture of crimes in Myanmar, by detailing the decades-long patterns of similar abuses against ethnic minorities.
The patterned nature of these violations is what renders the various Rohingya cases potentially such potent aids in accountability efforts by other ethnic groups. The same military and government leaders that are responsible for the Rohingya genocide are implicated in the crimes against other ethnicities. The FFM found that "[t]he consistent tactical formula employed by the Tatmadaw exhibits a degree of coordination only possible when all troops are acting under the effective control of a single unified command." At the top of this chain of command are Myanmar's Commander-in-Chief, the Deputy Commander-in-Chief, and numerous other Lieutenant and Brigadier Generals.
Conclusion: Justice for All or Stability for None
The international community has the tools and knows what to do when centralized commands and high-level perpetrators commit mass atrocities. The Security Council should refer the situation to the ICC, as it did in Sudan and Libya, to widen the scope of the prosecutor's ongoing investigation to encompass crimes committed exclusively on the territory of Myanmar. Or, the Council could instead create an ad hoc tribunal, like it did following atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and empower it to investigate and prosecute crimes occurring against all of Myanmar's ethnic minorities. A third-party state could also demand the extradition of alleged perpetrators, or a regional country could propose a special tribunal, both of which were steps that contributed to the trial and conviction of Chadian dictator Hissène Habré. In the very least, the international community should sever all military and economic relationships with the Tatmadaw's leaders.
Too often justice and accountability are seen as barriers to achieving stability in Myanmar. The Tatmadaw's pattern of human rights violations against ethnic communities are a grim reminder that the opposite is actually true – justice and accountability are necessary preconditions for a true democratic transition. Justice for all is the only path forward, and until it is achieved, the Tatmadaw will continue its decades-long practice of scapegoating and targeting all of Myanmar's ethnic minorities.
Image: Ethnic Chin people hold placards during a protest asking for an end to conflict in Chin state and Rakhin State in Yangon on July 13, 2019. Around 1,000 Chin people have been displaced as fighting continues between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA) in the area between Chin State and Rakhine State. (Photo credit should read SAI AUNG MAIN/AFP via Getty Images)