UN Investigator Calls for Tougher Approach on Myanmar Abuses UN Investigator Calls for Tougher Approach on Myanmar Abuses
Gen Min Aung Hlaing (center) is Myanmar”s most senior army commander Yangon, Myanmar – A week after his soldiers began storming... UN Investigator Calls for Tougher Approach on Myanmar Abuses

Gen Min Aung Hlaing (center) is Myanmar”s most senior army commander [Aung Shine Oo/AP]

Yangon, Myanmar – A week after his soldiers began storming villages in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, slaughtering thousands as they burned people alive in their homes and raped women and children, the country’s military chief invited local businesses to a donation ceremony to support the bloody campaign.

The September 2017 ceremony, where Senior General Min Aung Hlaing raised over $1.4m, is just one example of how the Myanmar military has exploited a large network of business ties to fund “brutal operations against ethnic groups,” a United Nations fact-finding mission said in a report published on Monday.

In a 111-page report, a panel of three legal experts called on the international community to sever all ties with the Tatmadaw, as the military is known locally, urging financial sanctions, an arms embargo and a consumer boycott.

UN investigator calls for tougher approach on Myanmar abuses

It follows a report last year by the mission that called for Min Aung Hlaing and other senior military officials to be prosecuted for genocide for their role in the brutal 2017 crackdown, which forced more than 730,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.

The report offers a guide for anyone looking to hit the generals in their pockets by trying “to map as comprehensively as we’ve been able to the economic activities of the military,” Christopher Sidoti, a member of the panel and an international human rights lawyer, told Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera has contacted Myanmar’s military but has not received a reply.

The report identifies more than 120 businesses involved in everything from construction and pharmaceuticals to tourism and gem mining that are owned by two opaque military conglomerates, the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL).

The report also names 59 foreign companies that have joint ventures or other commercial ties with military-owned firms. These firms “risk contributing to, or being linked to, violations of international human rights and humanitarian law,” the mission said.

‘Reputational risk’

They include Japan Tobacco International, which produces Camel and WInston brand cigarettes and has a joint venture with MEC. Also listed is Newtec, a Belgian company supplying technology to a telecoms venture jointly owned by the military named Mytel.

The companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Al Jazeera. When reached by Al Jazeera, Newtec promised to issue a statement, but did not say when.

The panel argues in the report that firms have a legal obligation under international law to divest from Myanmar’s military.

UN warns of telecom blackout cover for Myanmar military abuses

The reputational risk of being linked to the Tatmadaw may help nudge foreign companies to divest, Sidoti said.

“If our report contributes to reputational damage, so be it.”

The panel also called for dozens of Myanmar companies to be criminally investigated for aiding and abetting international crimes and crimes against humanity with financial contributions to the military and the government.

At the September 2017 fundraiser, one of three that brought in a total of over $10m, Min Aung Hlaing praised the “compassion and nationalistic fervor” of the corporate donors. He also told attendees that “the Bengali problem” was an “unfinished job”.

Many in Myanmar refer to the Rohingya as Bengalis as part of what rights advocates describe as efforts to erase their identity.

Multi-million dollar donations

The report also highlights donations made by the Kanbawza (KBZ) Group and Max Myanmar, two of the country’s largest conglomerates, towards a border fence in Rakhine state that the panel says was built to prevent the Rohingya from returning home to Myanmar.

KBZ Group donated $2.2m for the fence in October 2017, when Rohingya were still fleeing Rakhine state to Bangladesh. Max Myanmar’s chairperson, Zaw Zaw, donated just under $1m in the same month.

The company officials “were aware of the substantial likelihood that the fence would contribute to the prevention of the displaced Rohingya population from returning to their homeland and community, thereby causing great suffering and anguish,” the mission wrote.

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Neither company immediately responded to requests for comment.

The mission called on the UN Security Council to impose an arms embargo and identified 14 companies from Israel, Russia, China, India, Ukraine and elsewhere supplying arms and equipment to the military.

And it found that the military had sought to procure dual-use equipment from companies in the UK, Austria, Japan and Canada, though it was unable to confirm if those deals went ahead.

Marzuki Darusman, the mission chair, said that while isolating the military it was important to also support the rest of Myanmar’s economy.

“Removing the Tatmadaw from Myanmar’s economy entails two parallel approaches. In addition to isolating the Tatmadaw financially, we have to promote economic ties with non-Tatmadaw companies and businesses in Myanmar,” he said.

The mission also emphasized that cutting the generals off financially should be done at the same time as pursuing prosecutions against them.

Progress on the latter has been “achingly slow” Sidoti said. While he was encouraged by the US’s recent decision to ban Min Aung Hlaing and three other generals from travelling to the country, it was a “largely symbolic” action, he said.

He added that he hoped the report would encourage further investigation into the military’s assets by UN agencies, journalists, NGOs and others.

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