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

YANGON Myanmar businesses are divided over how to respond to the new regime, even as the junta’s attempts to win legitimacy among investors have been rebuffed by major foreign business groups.

Western business groups, namely European, American, British, Italian and French chambers of commerce, rejected the regime’s invitation to meet on March 4. At the same time, major Asian business groups such as the Thai, Hong Kong, Japanese and Chinese have not released any statements of concern since the coup and lethal crackdown on protesters.

The Western chambers’ refusal comes at a time of widespread and rising condemnation against the regime’s brutal crackdown on unarmed protesting civilians, with more than 50 killed as of March 3, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), an independent monitoring group.

Australian business group AustCham Myanmar said on Wednesday it has “serious concern over the increasing use of violence against the people campaigning for a return to democratic Government in Myanmar.”

Yangon, the commercial capital, saw at least up to 32 killed in North Okkalapa township alone, in the eastern part, with witnesses saying they heard what sounded like continuous machine gun fire.

Photos in Mandalay have shown fighter jets in the sky, which many citizens assume is to strike fear. Live ammunition was used in seven cities on Wednesday including Yangon, Mandalay, Myingyan, Mawlamyine, Monywa, Pyin Oo Lwin and Hpakant, said AAPP.

“Myanmar will never be the same again,” Cardinal Charles Bo, the Catholic Church’s highest prelate in Myanmar, tweeted in response to the Wednesday massacre.

Protesters scatter after tear gas is fired by police during a demonstration in the northwestern town of Kale on March 2, 2021. Photo: AFP/STR

A Myanmar-focused journalist and analyst, who requested anonymity, said “Private businesses have a crucial role to play at this time. Both local and foreign businesses which have ties to the two military conglomerates should sever the links.”

Various foreign businesses have created joint ventures with the military-run Myanma Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC). Japanese beer giant Kirin has exited its tie-up with MEC since the coup.

“As employees of private banks join the Civil Disobedience Movement, the movement has paralyzed the entire banking system, not only military-owned banks. In time the movement could snowball into even many employees of military-owned or affiliated businesses joining as well,” the same source suggested.

Many local businesses have been openly supportive of the anti-military movement. These include leading retailer City Mart, which recently returned already stocked beer produced by the Myanmar military. It has since refused to stock Myanmar military-brewed beer.

Small vendors have also refused to sell military brands while many business owners have looked the other way so workers can participate in the Civil Disobedience Movement.

There are certain signs that the junta is responding to the private sector’s concerns.

The business community strongly objected to the military’s proposed draconian cybersecurity bill, which groups said would be detrimental to their ability to operate in the country.

Critical statements were released by the Myanmar Computer Federation, the UMFCCI and several foreign chambers. The junta to date has not moved forward with the bill but quietly adopted new criminal provisions in amending the electronic transactions law.

“Responsible business benefits from democracy and human rights and it occupies a shared space with civil society,” said Vicky Bowman, director of the Yangon-based Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business.

“Where there is less freedom of expression, there is more corruption and more bad business behavior. Both of those are bad for business.”

Foreign telecom operators are increasingly caught in the crossfire. Telenor, a Norway-based telecom operator active in the country, had earlier regularly updated its customers on military directives that have sporadically shut off internet connectivity since February 1.

A protester holds a phone with a case with the map of Myanmar during a demonstration against the military coup. Photo: AFP / Jack Taylor

However, it announced on February 14 that it would no longer be possible “to disclose the directives we receive from the authorities.” 

The company released a statement on March 5 that it “regrets recent and ongoing service disruption for all telecom customers in Myanmar” and that it cannot provide prior notification to customers.

Other telcom operators, Ooredoo of Qatar, military-owned Mytel and state-run MPT have not shown the same the level of transparency, critics notes. 

More than 160 companies, 115 local and 47 international including multinational firms such as Coca-Cola, Facebook, Telenor and Heineken, signed a joint statement to express “growing and deep concern the developments in Myanmar since the declaration of a state of emergency on 1st February.”

With the recent escalation of violence, businesses should care for the safety of their staff and their mental health, said Bowman, whose group helped to facilitate the joint statement.

“Employers should ensure that they protect the civil liberties of their employees. If workers want to exercise their right to freedom of association and expression and demonstrate as individual citizens, they should be able to do so, even if it means them taking leave, paid or unpaid,” she said.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing chiars a meeting at the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry in Naypyidaw. Photo: Screenshot/Myanmar Radio and Television/AFP

At the same time, the nation’s top business body, the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chamber of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI), has continued to engage somewhat with the regime, giving it a certain measure of legitimacy.

UMFCCI president Zaw Min Win attended the 27th ASEAN Economic Ministers’ Retreat Meeting online engaging with Aung Naing Oo, the junta-appointed minister for investment and foreign relations on March 2.

According to local media The Voice, a webinar planned between the minister and the UMFCCI for Wednesday was canceled because there were no attendees. But it remains unclear if the body has officially refused to meet the military.

Leaders of the UMFCCI met the junta two days after the coup and was forced to shut down its office after being shamed for pressuring employees to return to work, an accusation it denied.

In a Facebook post widely shared online, netizens are calling on the public to shame and boycott UMFCCI leaders and their businesses. Those targeted in the post included Wai Phyo, owner of Yathar Cho, Aye Win, owner of Thuriya Win and Nagar Pyan tea and Kyaw Lwin, owner of Shwe Than Lwin and SkyNet TV station.

Protesters hold up signs during a demonstration outside the Myanmar Central Bank against the military coup in Yangon on February 16, 2021. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

Others targeted for criticism have included Ko Ko Gyi, owner of the Diamond Capital Star Group and Aung Moe Kyaw, owner of the Grand Royal Whisky group. Neither signed the joint statement raising concern about the coup makers’ rising rights abuses.

Asian companies invested in the country who have remained silent on the coup are also increasingly in the crosshairs.

“It is surprising to see big investors like CP Group [of Thailand], Shwe Taung and Grand Royal being completely silent during the crisis, even as many SME businesses here are risking their businesses to support the resistance,” said a senior business executive who requested anonymity due to fear of regime reprisals.

“Businesses have a responsibility to speak up during this crisis. Consumers and employees are right to scrutinize businesses, and should teach those irresponsible investors a lesson,” the executive opined.

That sentiment is being expressed on the streets, too. “Businesses should take a firm stance on injustice. If they do not stand with the people when they are being killed by armed individuals, these businesses will face the people’s social punishment,” said protester Ma Thae.

“Businesses should know that being boycotted by consumers is a much higher price to pay than to maintain good relations with generals.”