Will more S’pore investors in Myanmar pull out their investment in protest to military coup? – The Online Citizen Asia

On 1 February, the Myanmar military junta detained de facto leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, along with President Win Myint and other senior politicians, in the capital of Naypyidaw.

The military takeover stemmed from alleged fraud in the election held in November last year, won by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

It was reported that the military junta has announced a one-year state of emergency and promised to hold fresh elections, but it has yet offered any specific timeframe for the elections.

Two days after the coup, Suu Kyi faced criminal charges related to the illegal import of a set of walkie-talkies.

The coup has sparked international condemnation, with US President Joe Biden leading calls for the generals to relinquish power and release those arrested in the post-coup crackdown.

As protests emerged against the military takeover, the junta ordered telecom networks to block access to Facebook in the country, and subsequently blocked Twitter and Instagram.

London-based independent internet service watchdog Netblocks reported on 6 February that Myanmar was experiencing “a near-total internet shutdown”, with connectivity falling to just 16 per cent of normal levels.

Myanmar saw its largest anti-coup protest on Saturday (6 Feb) with about 1,000 demonstrators marched on a road near Yangon University, most holding up the three-finger salute that symbolizes resistance to the military takeover.

Foreign firms under scrutiny after military coup

The military coup, however, has placed foreign firms with investments in Myanmar under increased scrutiny.

For instance, Japanese beer giant Kirin Holdings said last week that it would scrap its beer alliance with Myanmar Economic Holdings Public Company (MEHL) after United Nations claimed that MEHL was linked to the Myanmar military.

Reuters reported that MEHL, founded in 1990, was modelled on Singapore’s Temasek Holdings to promote businesses from telecoms and transportation to energy and resources.

A United Nations 2019 report found that companies with commercial ties to MEHL and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) “are contributing to supporting the Tatmadaw’s financial capacity”.

The report highlighted that these companies are at “high risk of contributing to or being linked to, violations of human rights law and international humanitarian law”.

It was said that the military’s operation in 2017–where it drove more than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims to Bangladesh–included genocide and gang rapes.

MEHL was further linked to the military when Amnesty International’s report last year cited documents which state that the firm funnelled about US$16 billion to military units between 1990 and 2011.

It showed that army unit, including combat divisions, owned about one-third of MEHL’s shares.

“We have no option but to terminate our current joint-venture partnership,” Kirin said in a statement on Friday (5 Feb).

It was also reported that the joint venture’s main brand Myanmar Beer was among the army-linked products that have been boycotted since the coup.

S’pore the largest foreign investor in Myanmar

Commenting on the military coup, a spokesperson from Enterprise Singapore’s (ESG) told TODAY (4 Feb) that the Singapore government is “deeply concerned” about the latest developments in Myanmar.

“Myanmar and Singapore share close bilateral economic ties, and we have ongoing investment projects and business interests in Myanmar. We will monitor the situation closely,” said the spokesperson.

Singapore was listed as the largest foreign investor in Myanmar by the World Bank last year, accounting for 34 per cent of overall approved investment. Hong Kong came second with 26 per cent.

Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) commitments into Myanmar were worth US$5.5 billion (£4 billion) in the 2020 fiscal year, which ended in September, as reported by BBC.

The Global New Light of Myanmar reported last October that about 20 Singapore-listed enterprises brought in US$1.85 billion into Myanmar in the past financial year 2019-2020, making it the top source of foreign investment in the country.

Hong Kong came second with an estimated capital of US$1.42 billion, followed by Japan with US$760 million worth of investment.

According to Dr Oh Su-Ann’s report in 2019 – a visiting fellow with ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute – Singapore’s investment in Myanmar involved 305 firms in total, consisting of Singaporean and Singapore-based enterprises.

Citing ESG’s statistics in 2017, she noted that these companies mainly put investments in the information and communications sector (73%), manufacturing (14%) and real estate (4.6%).

S’pore Lim Kaling exits joint venture ties to Myanmar military conglomerate

On Tuesday (9 Feb), Razer’s co-founder and director Lim Kaling said he would sell his one-third stake in a joint venture that owns RMH Singapore, which in turn owns 49 per cent of Myanmar’s cigarette maker Virginia Tobacco Company (VCTL).

Mr Lim noted that recent events in Myanmar have caused him “grave concern”, thus he decided to exit his investment and is “exploring options for the responsible disposal” of his stake in RMH.

He revealed that RMH Singapore owns 49 per cent of VCTL in Myanmar, adding that it is his only remaining investment in Myanmar, initiated nearly three decades ago under a very different circumstance.

“I have always been a passive minority shareholder with no direct involvement in the operations of Virginia Tobacco,” he added.

VCTL is a leading cigarette producer in Myanmar, in which 51 per cent of the company is owned by MEHL.

Prior to Mr Lim’s announcement, activist group Justice For Myanmar (JFM) uploaded a series of photos on Twitter showing how the cigarettes were destroyed in a protest against the military takeover and its businesses.

“According to the UN Fact-Finding Mission, Lim Kaling’s tobacco business aids and abets the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Myanmar,” JFM stated on its petition page calling for the removal of Mr Lim from the Razer’s board.

S’pore-run companies listed in Burma Campaign UK’s “Dirty List”

Aside from RMH Singapore, there are several other Singapore-run businesses that have been linked to the military in Myanmar by Burma Campaign UK.

This was first highlighted by blogger Swe Sin Tha, in her blog post published on Tuesday.

She cited the Burma Campaign UK’s “Dirty List” released in May last year, which highlights the role of international companies in assisting the military in Myanmar to “continue to commit human rights violations”.

It was stated that the list is “by no means comprehensive”, given the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) estimation of the military-controlled Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEH) alone has at least 50 joint ventures with international companies.

“Information on UMEH and the other military conglomerate, Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and all their subsidiaries is mostly not publicly available,” said Burma Campaign UK.

The following Singapore-run companies are among the international companies listed in the “Dirty List”:

  • Coda Pay: Singaporean digital payment technology company Coda Pay, founded in 2011, was one of the companies listed in the “Dirty List”. It was said that the company works for Mytel, the military-owned mobile phone network, proving payment services for Mytel’s entertainment service.
  • Excellence Metal Casting: Excellence Metal Casting is a Singaporean company established in 2000, which was named by the UN Panel on North Korea sanctions as being linked to Tun Hlaing, Director of the Myanmar Directorate for Defence Industries.

Myanmar Now posted on Twitter earlier today (10 Feb) that a police report has been filed against Excellence Metal Casting for “breaking UN sanctions on North Korea enabling the Burmese military to procure weapons from the country”.

  • STE Global Trading Pte Ltd: Another Singaporean company named by the UN Panel on North Korea sanctions as being linked to Tun Hlaing. A police report has also been filed against STE Global Trading for “breaking UN sanctions on North Korea enabling the Burmese military to procure weapons from the country”.
  • Global ­Airfreight: A Singaporean airfreight company that rents its offices in Burma from Myawaddy Bank. Burma Campaign UK noted that Myawaddy Bank is part of Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, which is owned by the military in Myanmar.
  • Grab: The ride-hailing and food delivery giant headquartered in Singapore, hires the Gandamar Grand Ballroom in Burma for corporate events. It was said that Gandamar Grand Ballroom is owned by the military-controlled Union of MEHL.
  • HyalRoute: HyalRoute is a Singapore-run company which supplies communications fibre optic cables. It was stated that the company works for the military-owned Mytel mobile phone network in Burma.
  • Infinity Global Solutions: A Singaporean e-commerce services company which provides services to Adipati Agricultural Produce Trading Limited – owned by the military-controlled Union of MEHL.
  • Iseaco Investment: Iseaco Investment owns Iseaco Ship Management Pte, which in turn owns the container ship Iseaco Genesis. It was stated that Iseaco Genesis has used the military-owned Hteedan Port in Yangon and also manages the GSS Yangon, which uses the same port.
  • Norse Group: A shipping company in Singapore that owns a British subsidiary Norse Management. It noted that the subsidiary of Norse Shipholding Pte Ltd – namely Rum Shipholding Pte Ltd – owns the Cherry Vesta cargo ship which uses the military-owned Ahlone International Port Terminal in Yangon.
  • Pacifica International Lines: Pacifica International Lines is a Singaporean shipping and transport company. It uses the Hteedan Port in Yangon which is co-owned by the military-owned Myanmar Economic Corporation.
  • Transworld Group Singapore: Transworld Group Singapore is a Singaporean shipping company which uses the military-owned Alhone International Port Terminal 1 in Yangon – in which its BLPL Singapore subsidiary, the BLPL Blessing, was in this port on 7 August 2019.

Given that Singapore is the largest foreign investor in Myanmar, the question now boils down to how these Singapore-run companies can join hands and remove itself from investing in Myanmar, which can add pressure to the military junta to stop the atrocities it is committing in the country.

In fact, the people of Myanmar are also calling for a boycott of military businesses and have taken matter to the streets with its fast-growing protests.

By continuing business involvement in Myanmar, these companies are, in a way, showing its support for the military regime and not the people. This goes against the recommendations of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar and Amnesty International which calls for all investors to cut ties with the military.

Japan’s Kirin terminating its beer alliance with MEHL shows the possibility for Singapore-run companies to do the same and take a stance against the military coup in Myanmar.