Anti-military protesters flash signs calling for a rejection of junta rule in Myanmar. Photo: Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto via AFP

YANGON – Myanmar’s anti-coup Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) is aiming at the junta’s economic lifelines through fast-spreading consumer boycotts and public shaming campaigns of brands and businesses associated with the military coup makers.

The aim of the boycotts, protesters say, is to hit the army’s finances by hurting the revenues of its associated businesses, not least the military-run Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC).

Protesters hope the combination of economic pressure, civil disobedience and protests will bring down army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s coup regime, cause a split inside the military or eventually force the generals to negotiate with the toppled, democratically-elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government.  

The military’s commercial interests reach far and wide through Myanmar’s economy, with businesses in retail, entertainment, media, beauty products, food and beverages, hotels, construction, oil and gas, banking, agriculture, telecommunications, among others. Many of these business holdings are run through MEHL and MEC.  

In mid-February, the Biden administration sanctioned military generals associated with the coup and their junta regime, as well as military-owned and affiliated companies including those owned by the regime leader’s children.

Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has vast economic resources at his disposal. Photo: AFP/Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency

The boycotts have at least anecdotally started to bite. City Mart, the largest retailer in the country, is no longer stocking military-made Myanmar Beer as well as other junta-related products including cigarettes. The boycott has also been implemented by small corner shops and convenience stores.

Win, a chain restaurant in Yangon, removed a Myanmar Beer signboard at one of its stores seen by this correspondent and has released a public statement saying it will “no longer be selling Myanmar Beer in all branches.”

“The people are no longer buying Myanmar Beer so it will only bring us loss if we stock them,” said Ma Win, a convenience store cashier in Yangon.

A small-scale protest held in Myitkyina in Kachin state in the country’s north on Tuesday by the “Myitkyina Young Alcohol Enjoyer against the military coup” featured placards with a giant cross on a Myanmar Beer poster and slogans saying “It’s much more dignified to be a drunkard than to be killing citizens like [the Myanmar military].”

That rising public sentiment has caused some foreign investors with ties to the military to head for the exits. Kirin Holdings, a Japanese drinks giant, announced that it has ended its partnership with MEHL just days after the February 1 coup.

“The Myanmar military’s ongoing crimes against humanity are financed by Myanmar Brewery, Mytel and other cartel businesses,” said activist group Justice for Myanmar spokesperson Yadanar Maung.

“All businesses must immediately cut ties with military-linked businesses or risk being complicit in their heinous crimes.”

Perceptions that certain companies and countries are too close to the military regime have been costly. Several Chinese-invested factories were torched earlier this month by unknown perpetrators believed to be associated with the CDM and in response to Beijing’s support of the junta regime at the United Nations and in post-coup public statements.

Black smoke billows from the industrial zone of Hlaing Thar Yar Township in Yangon on March 14, 2021. Attacks on Chinese-run factories in Myanmar’s biggest city drew demands from Beijing for military protection for their property and employees. Photo: Agencies/Screengrab

That’s raised questions among analysts and observers concerning which companies and countries may be targeted next for reprisal.

Mytel, a telecom operator owned jointly by the Vietnamese Ministry of Defense’s wholly-owned Viettel, Star High Public Company, a subsidiary of the Myanmar Economic Corporation, and Myanmar National Telecom Holding Public, has also been hit by the boycotts and protests.

Photos posted online show local shops with signs reading “We do not sell top-up cards for SIM cards for [military JV telecom operator] Mytel.”

Mobile applications are helping people to identify military-linked companies to boycott. Way Way Nay, one of the boycott-promoting apps whose name translates from Burmese to “Avoid It”, has over 100,000 downloads on the Google Playstore.

Apart from military brands, the app also targets gemstone retailers owned by the family of Thet Thet Khine, who was appointed as the junta’s minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement.

The boycott is now spreading from big cities like Yangon and Mandalay to more rural areas including the tourist area of Bagan and remote villages in southeastern Mon state.

The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), formed by ousted NLD lawmakers as a parallel government and outlawed by the junta regime, has issued a call against the payment of taxes for the remaining financial year, which ends on September 30. 

The CRPH has urged utility workers to refrain from collecting monthly electricity bills for residential and non-household users until further instruction and has ordered banks to waive loan repayments for farmers and to boycott any government bond sales. 

Protesters take part in a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on February 22, 2021. Photo: Ye Aung Thu / AFP

Tin Tun Naing, the CRPH’s acting parallel minister for investment and foreign economic relations, has also signed a notice to waive interest-free loans given to permanent government employees as junta rewards on March 8.

The parallel government’s finance minister said that expected government revenue for 2021 is 25 trillion kyat, where taxation and revenues from state-owned enterprises, primarily those in the oil and gas industry, will make up to 20 trillion kyat.

“I will try as quickly as possible to block all of this money from flowing to the military,” Tin Tun Naing wrote online.

The boycott, together with Western sanctions and cut commercial ties, threaten in particular MEHL and MEC. A 2020 investigation by Amnesty International revealed that the military received dividends amounting to as much as $18 billion over the years via MEHL.

Anti-coup activists and the CRPH are now also contacting international firms with investments in Myanmar requesting them to suspend or stop engagement with the military.

“As the military tightens its grip on the country following their brutal and illegitimate coup, they are relying on international business to bankroll their regime and provide it with legitimacy,” said Yadanar Maung.

A recent CRPH letter addressed to energy firms including French’s Total, Malaysia’s Petronas, South Korea’s POSCO and Thailand’s PTTEP asked all of them to suspend their payments to the military coup government, including the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise.

Posco International’s onshore gas terminal facility in Kyaukphyu, Rakhine state in a 2019 photo. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

Certain multinational companies are responding to the boycott call. For instance, French power giant EDF announced on March 20 that it will suspend its $1.5 billion Shweli-3 hydropower project in eastern Shan state.

The 617-megawatt project is scheduled to be built in an area still plagued by civil war between government forces and ethnic armed organizations. The Myanmar military has been involved in “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity,” EDF said in a revealing recent statement.

“EDF’s decision to suspend the Shweli-3 hydropower project is a milestone and indicates the way forward for French companies in Myanmar. We especially call on all companies with ties to the junta to cut those ties,” said Sophie Brondel, coordinator of Info Birmanie, a French activist group.

“Such actions by international businesses are vital in reducing the military’s funds that are used to commit violence and crimes against humanity,” she said.

South Korean companies are also facing pressure after several of them were revealed to have business ties with the military, including steelmaker POSCO, Pan-Pacific and the Inno Group, all of which have joint ventures with MEHL.

Anti-coup protesters gather in Myanmar’s main business district in downtown Yangon. Image: Screengrab/CNN

South Korea’s Posco Energy reported gave MEHL a 30% equity in the Myanmar POSCO joint venture in exchange for land located inside the MEHL-controlled Pyinmabin industrial zone in Yangon, according to a recently leaked document revealed by DDoSecrets, a whistleblower site. 

The leaked document also showed that Hong Kong-listed VPower Group, which set up a 50-50 joint venture with a Chinese state-owned company, was leasing land from the military. VPower won four out of five contracts in a controversial energy tender which was perceived to be rushed by the Myanmar Electricity and Energy Ministry in 2019.

The tender gave potential investors only one month to submit bids and required the winner to implement the LNG-to-power projects within a short 210 days and charge an extremely high rate for consumers to make any profit due to the short contract term of the project, which is five years.