Activists and protesters unsatisfied with New Belgium’s ‘lack of concrete commitments’ on human rights questions
Employees of American brewery New Belgium have voted to approve the sale of their company to a subsidiary of Japanese beer giant Kirin Holdings, the company announced this week.
The vote came in spite of protests and demands by human rights groups—many of them from the Karen-American community—that employees reject the sale.
Kirin has enriched the Myanmar military, which has used the money to help fund human rights abuses against ethnic communities across the country, including a campaign of mass murder, rape and arson against the Rohingya in Rakhine state in 2017, United Nations experts have said.
New Belgium disputes these allegations and is sticking by Kirin. Leah Pilcer, the company’s director of communications, told Myanmar Now that New Belgium has done its due diligence and is satisfied with Kirin’s commitment to human rights.
“Respect for human rights is fundamental to all of their business activities,” she said.
Still, the company’s founder, Kim Jordan, called news of the accusations “unsettling.”
After the acquisition she will personally work with Kirin’s International Advisory Board on a ‘further examination’ of the Japanese company’s human rights impact in Myanmar, she said.
A disappointing meeting
But the results of the vote left many activists disheartened.
A couple dozen of them—including five Karen refugees—braved -18C temperatures on 14 December to protest outside New Belgium’s doors, in Fort Collins, Colorado.
News of the sale had come as a surprise to them. New Belgium professes a commitment to proving business can be “a force for good.”
“Roads were covered with ice and snow,” said Lynn Thompson, an organizer with the Fort Collins Homeless Coalition, one of several organizations that co-sponsored the protest. “The Karen refugees drove all the way from Denver!”
Myanmar Now first reported on the sale on 6 December.
Kirin owns the Myanmar Brewery in a joint-venture partnership with Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), the military conglomerate headed by commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, who the UN has recommended be tried for genocide and crimes against humanity.
The military uses its vast business network to fund its brutal campaigns against ethnic minorities, a UN-backed international fact-finding mission said.
The employee vote approves New Belgium’s acquisition by Lion Little World Beverages, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Kirin.
On Saturday, the company’s leadership, including Jordan and CEO Steve Fechheimer, opened their doors to the protesters, inviting them in to chat.
“We appreciate that our friends and fans are raising concerns around Kirin’s business in Myanmar, this news is certainly unsettling,” Jordan told an ABC affiliate in North Carolina, where they also have a brewery, following the protest.
“We were very grateful and humbled to have heard the personal stories of the refugees,” Pilcer told Myanmar Now.
But several activists told Myanmar Now they left the meeting unsatisfied and convinced New Belgium’s leadership had no intention of reconsidering the sale.
“I was disappointed with the conversation,” Thompson said.
“While it is clear New Belgium’s management is learning a lot… they should have done their due diligence earlier,” she added. “This does not seem like late-breaking news to me.”
The company’s “bland statements” offer “no concrete commitments for change,” said a statement from the Fort Collins Community Action Network, another protest sponsor.
The statement said New Belgium had been vague on Saturday about when they had learned of Kirin’s links to the military conglomerate.
On 10 December, the Karen Community of North Carolina, where New Belgium has a brewery, and pressure group Inclusive Development International penned an open letter to brewery employees urging them to vote against the sale.
“Most of us sought protection in the USA to escape from the Burmese army’s campaigns of ethnic cleansing,” it read. “We are deeply concerned that New Belgium Brewing is being bought by Kirin’s fully-owned subsidiary, Lion Little World, pending your vote.”
“As a subsidiary of Kirin, New Belgium would become part of a key financial network empowering the Burmese military to continue committing genocide and crimes against humanity, unless you vote no,” it said.
Kirin has been on pressure group Burma Campaign UK’s “Dirty List” of companies not to do business with since 2018, the same year Amnesty International called on the Japanese government to investigate them for criminal misconduct.
“To describe genocide as ‘unsettling’ minimizes the crimes the Myanmar army has committed and continues to commit,” said Khin Ohmar, a human rights activist and leader in Myanmar’s 1988 democracy uprising.
After the protests, Kirin and New Belgium both promised a “further examination” of Kirin’s “operations and relationships” in Myanmar.
Both declined to offer further details on what such and an examination would entail.
“We will continue conversations with (activists) and are seeking out additional advisors to be as informed as possible,” Pilcer said. “We aren’t sharing anymore right at this time.”
For activists, it isn’t enough.
“I call on Kirin to divest from their business with the military,” Khin Ohmar said. “Until they do that, they will continue to be directly complicit in genocide and crimes against humanity.”
New Belgium has been added to a boycott of Kirin launched by the International Campaign for the Rohingya.
While financial details have not been disclosed, Forbes magazine reported the all-cash deal to be worth between $350m and $400m.
Once the sale goes through, New Belgium employees will receive a $100,000 bonus in their pension funds, with some receiving more, Jordan said in an open letter.
“This result moves us one step closer towards New Belgium Brewing officially joining Lion Little World Beverages,” Fechheimer said in a statement announcing the vote results. “We’re excited about the next chapter for NBB and continuing to prove business can be a force for good.”
The sale is expected to be finalized in the coming weeks.