Tuesday 22 September 2020

Myanmar: Leaked documents reveal global business ties to military crimes

Source AI, 10 Sept

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 activities 
Mark 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 figures 
Mark 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[1], 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.

[1]For users inside Myanmar, Justice For Myanmar has created a mirror site that can be accessed here:

Rohingya refugees' lawyers lobby for International Criminal Court to sit in Asia

Source RNZ, 1 Sept

Two Australian lawyers acting on behalf of hundreds of Rohingya refugees are pushing to have the International Criminal Court (ICC) sit in Asia for the first time.

Rohingya people are seen at Jamtoli refugee camp at Ukhia in Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh on August 23, 2020.

Rohingya people at Jamtoli refugee camp at Ukhia in Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh. Photo: AFP / NurPhoto / Rehman Asad

The ICC is investigating allegations of genocide and crimes against humanity allegedly committed by Myanmar government and military officials in 2017.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya - a stateless, mostly Muslim minority group - fled to neighbouring Bangladesh during the unrest.

Myanmar's government, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has faced accusations of failing to stop a systematic campaign of violence by security forces to wipe out the Rohingya minority, which Myanmar denies.

Lawyers acting on behalf of Rohingya refugees have now lodged a pre-trial motion asking the court to investigate the possibility of holding a trial outside of Europe.

A landscape view in the Balukhali camp in Cox's Bazar Bangladesh on February 11, 2019. (Photo by Kazi Salahuddin Razu/NurPhoto)

The Balukhali camp in Cox's Bazar Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. Photo: AFP

What are they asking for?

Counsel at the ICC Kate Gibson is representing groups of Rohingya living in the Cox's Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh.

Gibson said they were hoping the court would hold some or part of the hearings in Asia, possibly in Bangkok in Thailand, or even Bangladesh.

"We're just asking the court to be aware of this massive gap that is existing between the Rohingya population in the camp who are cut off in every sense that you could imagine from The Hague to be aware that they feel like this," she said.

"We think one of the most effective ways of doing that would be to look into whether the ICC can move its seat to somewhere closer to the victim communities."

What are the issues with the ICC's current location?

Postdoctoral research fellow at Sydney Law School Rosemary Grey said witnesses and victims faced a number of problems, including financial difficulty, lack of documentation and poor internet connections.

"If justice is going to be closer to them, the ICC is going to have to move to them, not them to the ICC," Dr Grey said.

Emma Palmer, a lecturer at Griffith University Law School in Brisbane, Australia, said The Hague's distance from victims had an effect on the way it ran its trials.

"[Prosecutors] need to rely much more on intermediaries, on civil society groups to help them in the actual jurisdiction that they're trying to investigate," Dr Palmer said.

What do claimants say?

Muhammed Nowkhim is one of the Rohingya refugees hoping to testify before the court.

He left his village - along with 20,000 other people - after he woke to the sound to gunfire and rockets in August 2017.

Nowkhim said his family members were shot at, and his home was burned to the ground during the violence.

"When they started blasting, one blast like a rocket, at that time our family is scared," he said. "Most of the people [in the village] were injured, some of the people were shot, some people were bleeding."

The 24-year-old said having the court sit in Asia, rather than The Hague, would be meaningful to other people who wanted to testify.

"If the court is set up in Asia then every victim who [suffered], they can openly say their opinion in front of the judges," Nowkhim said.

Gibson said there were logistical benefits to the move.

"The court will be closer to the evidence, the sites, the witnesses themselves, and you won't have to put this burden on the victim communities to travel to this foreign location," she said.

Is it likely?

"The International Criminal Court can theoretically hold proceedings anywhere," Dr Grey said.

While the ICC has never sat outside of its headquarters in The Hague since it began in 2002, Dr Grey said she thought the move was "realistic".

Victims in countries such as Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo have made similar requests in the past, but they had been rejected on security, financial and technical grounds.

"The ICC has to have its proceedings somewhere safe for the judges, for the lawyers, safe for the victims or witnesses," Dr Grey said.

"[But] there are plenty of locations in Asia that are quite stable.

"And it's not that it's a hugely unrealistic request because they are asking for just some of the proceedings to be closer to Asia."

What other courts could inform the ICC's move?

Legal experts pointed to the UN-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia as a possible model.

The tribunal investigated war crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, and was established in the capital Phnom Penh in 2006.

"The public gallery was full of Cambodian people, full of local people who have bused in from the provinces, people from Phnom Penh, people in school uniform or university students, local journalists," Dr Grey said.

"It was full of monks witnessing the proceedings, completely different environment than the International Criminal Court, where you very rarely see anyone from the affected country."

Dr Palmer said the ICC has had little engagement with South East Asia in the past.

"Even opening the discussion [of having the court in Asia] could be important if it opens some doors to the court to actually learn a bit more about the region," Dr Palmer said.

The ICC has been contacted for comment.