Rohingya refugees flee into Bangladesh after a military crackdown sparked a mass exodus of the Muslim minority. File Photo: AFP / Fred Dufour

Take a walk, watch television, or use the subway. Do any of these activities in Japan and you will likely come across a Kirin advertisement. Since its inception in 1885 as Japan Brewery, Kirin has grown into a household name in Japan, and arguably one of the world’s best-known Japanese brands.

The beverage giant offers everything from soft drinks to plum wine to yogurt. But its beer is the company’s trademark product, available in more than 40 countries. Its distinctive label depicts the legendary kirin, a magical creature “believed to be a harbinger of good luck.” 

However, Kirin’s partnership with the Myanmar military, also known as the Tatmadaw, has brought anything but luck to Myanmar’s ethnic minority populations. For decades, the Tatmadaw has been responsible for grave abuses against the country’s minorities, including the Rohingya in Rakhine state. 

In August and September 2017, the Tatmadaw intensified its campaign of ethnic cleansing, committing widespread killings, sexual violence, and torching of villages against the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state that sent more than 740,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh, where they now live in the world’s largest refugee camp.

A United Nations–backed Fact-Finding Mission reported in 2018 that atrocities by Myanmar’s armed forces against ethnic minorities “rise to the level of both war crimes and crimes against humanity” and in late 2019 warned that the Rohingya faced an increased risk of genocide.

There have been bold steps to hold Myanmar and individuals responsible for the crimes to account. The Gambia, Africa’s smallest country, brought a case before the International Court of Justice alleging violations of the Genocide Convention, to which Myanmar is a party. In January, the court unanimously directed Myanmar to prevent genocide against the Rohingya and to preserve evidence as the case continues on the merits. 

Last November, the International Criminal Court authorized the court’s prosecutor to investigate alleged crimes against humanity against the Rohingya where at least one element took place in Bangladesh, an ICC state party, including deportation and other inhumane acts.

Kirin’s partnership with the Myanmar military began in 2015, when it bought 55% of Myanmar Brewery Ltd in a joint venture with the military-owned Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (MEHL). Kirin later transferred 4% of its outstanding shares in the brewery to MEHL.

In 2017, it entered another partnership with the conglomerate, acquiring 51% of Mandalay Brewery Ltd. With these purchases, Kirin’s local subsidiaries, operated in partnership with Tatmadaw-controlled MEHL, in effect dominate Myanmar’s beer market.

In 2019, the UN Fact-Finding Mission published a report citing Kirin’s business relationship with MEHL, saying that “any foreign business activity” involving Myanmar’s military and its conglomerates poses “a high risk of contributing to or being linked to, violations of human-rights law and international humanitarian law.”

The report added that “at a minimum, these foreign companies are contributing to supporting the Tatmadaw’s financial capacity,” and thus called for their “financial isolation” to deter continuing and future violations of international human-rights and humanitarian law.

Kirin’s ties to the Myanmar military don’t end there. 

According to Amnesty International, Kirin’s subsidiary Myanmar Brewery Ltd made donations worth at least US$30,000 to the Myanmar military and the Rakhine state government between September and October 2017, as the military’s ethnic-cleansing campaign was being carried out against the Rohingya. 

Subsequently, Kirin said a $6,000 donation was made by its subsidiary on September 1, 2017, to the Rakhine state government, but admitted it was unable to determine conclusively that it was used for humanitarian purposes. Kirin also claimed it had “significant reasons” for believing that two other donations were “not in fact misused or given to the military.”

Kirin has not presented documentary evidence to substantiate its claims, according to Amnesty International. 

On May 22,  four human-rights and humanitarian organizations including Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to Kirin, asking the company to terminate its partnership with MEHL because the partnership is “contrary to Kirin’s Human Rights Policy and harms the company’s global image.” 

The company’s Human Rights Policy states that Kirin will respect international commitments to human rights including the International Bill of Human Rights and the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. That means Kirin not only needs to prevent its business operations from causing or contributing to human-rights abuses, but the company also needs to act to prevent or mitigate abuses directly linked to its business relationships, even if Kirin itself was not responsible for those abuses. 

Before Kirin responded to the group’s letter, it issued a statement that it had repeatedly asked MEHL for further documentation, with no response. Kirin also announced the hiring of a third party to “conduct an independent review of MEHL’s financial and governance structures to determine the destination of proceeds from the joint-venture businesses,” while it explores “alternative structural options” regarding its ownership of the joint ventures with MEHL.

Kirin’s willingness to respond to critics about the issues raised is a positive development. In its response to the group’s letter, the company said it intends to “address the concerns raised by the international community regarding our business operations in Myanmar” and is “considering all actions and options available to us that will lead to a positive outcome for the people of Myanmar.”

However, it can do more. Kirin should promptly end its business partnerships with the military-owned conglomerate and disclose the details of the independent review when it is completed. Only by taking bold and concrete action in a fully transparent manner can Kirin redeem its tarnished reputation.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now. 

Teppei Kasai

Teppei Kasai is the advocacy officer for Human Rights Watch in Japan.