UK Advocacy Group Accuses 49 International Companies of Supporting Military Abuses in Burma

Advocacy group Burma Campaign UK published its ‘Dirty List’ in early December 2018, slamming 49 international companies accused of “operating in Myanmar in such a way that contributes to human rights violations and environmental destruction.”

Burma Campaign UK Revives ‘Dirty List’ Following Recent Atrocities

This is the first time Burma Campaign UK has published a ‘Dirty List’ since the country purportedly began its democratic transition in 2011.

It comes in response to sustained human rights abuses perpetrated by Burma’s military (the Tatmadaw), which is currently under investigation by the International Criminal Court for ethnic cleansing committed against the Rohingya population in Rakhine State. These atrocities have continued unabated despite the landslide election of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD in 2015. Mark Farmaner, the Director of Burma Campaign UK, argues “companies which supply equipment to the military or do business with the military, are complicit in the human rights violations committed by them.”

The campaign’s goal is to draw attention to the role of the international community in funding the Tatmadaw. Burma Campaign UK hopes it will encourage states to place targeted sanctions on military-affiliated businesses and create public pressure for international companies to cease doing business with them. They argue it is part of a strategy “of adding more and more straws to the camel’s back” in the hope of building pressure for the Tatmadaw to withdraw from politics and allow genuine democratisation. The group claims previous ‘Dirty List’ campaigns, which targeted the military junta from 2002 onward, were a success, having purportedly led to over 100 companies ending their involvement in Burma.

Part of the motivation for reviving the ‘Dirty List’ is the hope it will shift blame for human rights abuses away from Aung San Suu Kyi and towards high-ranking Tatmadaw officials like the Commander-in-Chief, General Min Aung Hlaing. “Although criticism of her is justified,” Burma Campaign UK notes, “Min Aung Hlaing and his military are the biggest obstacle to improving human rights’ and democracy in Burma.” The group feels the scale and intensity of criticism channelled towards Aung San Suu Kyi is disproportionate to that levelled at the Tatmadaw, who are directly responsible for thousands of deaths yet “suffer no consequences for their actions.” Instead, Burma Campaign UK claims, international businesses “wine and dine” them, putting profits before conscience.

The 2018 ‘Dirty List’ – Arms Dealing and Dam Construction

The 49 companies included on Tuesday’s list come from China, Russia, France, Norway, Japan, the Ukraine, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Thailand and Vietnam. Many companies implicated are owned by the Russian and Chinese states or have high public profiles such as Facebook, Toshiba, and Visa.

The ‘Dirty List Report’ states that companies are included on the list if they:
• Directly or indirectly supply the military with arms, equipment, or services of any kind;
• Do business with the military and military-owned and controlled companies; or
• Are engaged in operations in Burma linked to environmental destruction.

There is significant variation across the list in both the type and level of alleged support for human rights and environmental abuses.

Among the most egregious are those directly involved in supplying weapons and military equipment to the Tatmadaw. Filipino company AMSCOR International for example, is accused of selling handguns to the Burmese military while at least eight companies from India, China and Russia have sold them equipment like fighter jets in recent years. Both the Russian and Chinese governments are arguably implicated in these sales, as the companies listed are either wholly or partly owned by the state. The state-owned Chinese company AVIC for example, has, through its subsidiary Hongdu Aviation Industry Group, manufactured jets used by the military in Kachin State where activists have complained of airstrikes targeting civilian populations. Similarly, United Aircraft Corporation, which is partly owned by the Russian state, announced a multimillion-dollar deal selling SU-30 fighter jets to the Tatmadaw in January this year.

Another major reason for inclusion on the list was involvement in constructing dams in ethnic areas or conflict zones. This captured a broad range of companies from Europe, China and Japan. For example, the French multinational Engie has been accused of involvement in constructing the Upper Yeywa dam in Shan State, which Burma Campaign UK claims is opposed by local residents and will result in displacement and environmental damage. Similarly, Toshiba was included for supplying the turbines for this dam through one of its subsidiaries. Shan State MP, San San Aye has previously urged “foreign countries to stop promoting and investing in dams in Burma’s war zones’ because ‘it is fuelling conflict and undermining efforts to seek peace.”

Facebook, Newtec and Cloudflare Respond

The inclusion of telecommunications and information-technology companies on the list has proved more controversial. Belgian company Newtec, which allegedly supplies communications equipment to Mytel, a phone company partly owned by the Tatmadaw’s Myanmar Economic Corporation, has threatened legal action against Burma Campaign UK for publishing its name on the list. American companies Cloudflare and Facebook have also responded to their inclusion on the ‘Dirty List.’

Cloudflare is an Internet services company accused of providing security infrastructure to General Min Aung Hlaing’s personal website. The company’s CEO claimed that Cloudflare “doesn’t do anything with the content” and that “it is a dangerous situation for us to start passing judgment on content.” Despite this, the Guardian noted the company did choose to withdraw services from a neo-Nazi website following the murder of a young woman at a rally in Charlottesville last year.

Facebook has also faced sustained criticism for failing to remove content that activists claim has incited hatred and violence, particularly against the Rohingya. For example, the UN Fact Finding Mission to Myanmar earlier this year concluded that Facebook had played a “determining role” in spreading anti-Rohingya sentiments. Unlike other companies on the Dirty List though, it has responded with actions as well as words.

A recent report by Freedom International noted that Facebook had previously made efforts to remove inflammatory content, in particular by removing Min Aung Hlaing’s page, as well as any pages supporting the Ma Ba Tha movement. However, the report also suggests censoring inflammatory content can be a double-edged sword, as by removing posts allegedly supporting the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, Facebook have inadvertently removed benign content documenting abuses by the Tatmadaw.

While Burma Campaign UK’s report doesn’t specify which of its ‘Dirty List’ criteria Facebook falls under, its Report last week criticised the company for allowing the Information Committee’s page to remain. This page is run by Aung San Suu Ky’s office and has been accused of spreading misinformation about the Rohingya crisis. The ‘Dirty List’ report also claimed the UN Fact Finding Mission urged Facebook to do more, like establishing an independent examination of what has taken place on their platform. However, the Guardian suggests Facebook already commissioned such a report in November. That report concluded Facebook has indeed become a platform for spreading hate speech and inciting violence in the real-world.

Last week, a Facebook spokesperson told the Guardian that the company had begun investigating and addressing the abuse of Facebook in Myanmar. Yesterday, Facebook acted on this, increasing the number of military-affiliated pages it has taken down from 20 to 425. A number of the pages targeted yesterday presented themselves as lifestyle or entertainment pages but allegedly had hidden links to the military or were used to spread harmful content. Aljazeera reports that Facebook also intends to increase the number of Burmese-speaking reviewers it employs to 100 by the end of the year. Nonetheless, as of today, the Information Committee’s page remains, and activists have argued 100 reviewers is insufficient to oversee 20 million users in Burma. By comparison, based on estimates from CNBC and Statistica, Facebook currently has 7,500 reviewers for approximately 214 million users in the US, with the number of reviewers set to increase next year. That is a ratio of roughly one reviewer to every 28,500 users. In Myanmar, even with the increased number of reviewers, that ratio is just 1 to every 200,000 users.

Controversy Surrounding Previous ‘Dirty Lists’

Previous ‘Dirty Lists’ published during the military junta’s rule have been criticised because they resulted in many companies simply pulling out of Burma altogether, rather than changing business partners to shift support away from the Tatmadaw. Critics have argued that the Burmese people are thus harmed the most by this kind of campaign. Burma Campaign UK does acknowledge that innocent people have lost their jobs because of international companies withdrawing from Burma, but their response is simple: “It will be argued that people could lose their jobs. On the other hand, ethnic people argue they are losing their lives.”

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