Fighting the cartel
Sai, a software engineer in central Myanmar, didn’t vote in last November’s general election. He paid little attention to politics. The coup, for the 24-year-old, was a brutal awakening.
Within days he began developing an app that listed every company and product he could find with ties to the Myanmar military. Working with a friend from his downtown apartment – circumventing erratic internet shutdowns and blocked websites – he launched Way Way Nay (‘Stay Far Away’).
Sai was at the forefront of a growing domestic boycott movement that seeks to sever the tentacles of the multi-billion-dollar trade Myanmar’s generals have built over decades. For the first time citizens are not only mobilizing en masse for political change, but for the overhaul of an entire economic system that has fortified the coup leaders now terrorizing the nation.
‘I used to drink military beer before. But now I feel really ashamed because I feel like I supported them in killing the people of Myanmar,’ Sai said. ‘By boycotting, the economics of the military will be brought down. We don’t want the military. We want reform.’
A murky web
The military’s chokehold on the economy began with its first coup in 1962. Adopting the so-called ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’, it nationalized major businesses, ended external trade and isolated Myanmar from the world. But the experiment failed disastrously: by the 1980s Myanmar had fallen far behind its neighbours and was rated one of the world’s poorest countries.
The junta shifted tack. In the 1990s it embraced a new era of crony capitalism, privatizing industries and establishing two military-run conglomerates – Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation. Through them it controlled everything from beer and tourism to mining, pharmaceuticals and gems. Despite the drastic change in the economy, the population remained impoverished while the generals and their associates reaped huge profits.
Unpacking how the military has used these corporations to fund the army and enrich ‘the top brass’ is vital to understanding the present crisis, said Htwe Htwe Thein, an associate professor at Curtin University in Australia who studies Myanmar’s economy. She thinks the coup, in part, was a response to the threat the ousted government posed to the military’s ‘previously untouchable wallets’.
Why it matters
For years the military has obscured its shadowy business dealings through complex webs, including shell companies. The generals maintained their sprawling enterprise even as Myanmar transitioned towards democracy, protected by a constitution weighted in their favour.
But there has been growing momentum to dismantle the cartel in recent years. In 2019 a UN report exposed the extent of the military’s links with domestic and foreign firms, showing how they bankrolled the army and generals, and in turn fuelled human rights abuses.3 The findings drew on whistleblowers taking deep risks.
Months later a covert group of activists formed Justice for Myanmar (JFM), a campaign pressuring foreign firms trading with the military to divest. It published investigations including one on businesses that donated to the military during the violent crackdown against Rohingya Muslims in 2017. The civilian government blocked the group’s website at the behest of the military, calling it ‘fake news’.
‘As the military speeds up its spiral of terror against the people, it is increasingly urgent to cut off the flow of funds financing these crimes against humanity,’ Yadanar Maung, a representative of JFM, told New Internationalist in an email.
Speaking from the mountainous city of Taunggyi, in eastern Shan State, a tech entrepreneur said his firm has pledged never to work with a military-linked business. ‘Before, we weren’t selective,’ said Zeyar*, explaining he was close to partnering with telecommunications giant Mytel, which is partially owned by the army, last year. But the post-coup crackdown has transformed his view. ‘They [the military] need to be punished,’ the 25-year-old said.
The buck doesn’t stop with businesses in Myanmar. Ever since the nation opened up its economy, scores of global firms have moved in. In 2020 Singapore, China and Thailand were the top foreign investors. Companies from Japan, South Korea, India, Europe and the US have or until recently had a presence too. According to the 2019 UN report, 14 foreign companies at the time had joint ventures with military businesses and at least 44 others had different forms of commercial ties with the generals.
Human rights groups have long urged firms and nations to stop trading with the military. These calls are now being amplified across Myanmar too.
The country’s anti-coup movement was quick to collaborate with global campaigners. In Paris protesters poured fake blood outside the office of Total, the French oil giant with ties to Myanmar’s military-controlled oil and gas company.6 In Seoul activists rallied outside the headquarters of South Korean steelmaker POSCO, another firm in business with the military.
They’ve seen results. Days after the coup, the Japanese brewer Kirin said it would terminate its partnership with the military. In April, POSCO said it had decided to discontinue its joint venture with MEHL. Top Singapore investor Lim Kaling also made an exit from the military’s tobacco monopoly.
Some countries have joined the campaign to cut the junta’s purse strings. Targeted sanctions have been imposed on coup leaders and military businesses by Britain, the EU and the US, though some analysts think they won’t be enough to force change. There are challenges to domestic boycotts too, with the military so entrenched in everyday life. Phyu*, a clerk in Yangon, threw away her Mytel SIM card days after the coup. Within a week she was forced to replace it by her employer, a notorious crony.
But others say the sweeping national Civil Disobedience Movement and the pace of companies pulling out of Myanmar shows that collective action is working. ‘The military is feeling the heat,’ said JFM.
In March Sai fled his home for fear of arrest. He is still updating the boycott app as new information emerges, lying low for now in a craggy border region. ‘I quit my job. I left my family, and every day I think about how to beat the military.’
* Name changed to protect identity.
Aye Min Thant is an American-Burmese journalist who has been writing on Myanmar since 2015, with articles published in multiple outlets including the New York Times and Reuters.