The Business of Conflict 

November 9th, 2020  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  8 minute read
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“The role of international organizations and donors supporting Myanmar’s election must be to ensure the election is conducted to democratic standards in accordance with international human rights.”

Yanadar Maung, Justice For Myanmar

On 28 October, the Myanmar military’s navy forces unleashed a targeted artillery at a civilian boat carrying International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) supplies for displaced and vulnerable people in Rakhine State. The attack killed one and injured two others, with the boat being completely incinerated in the attack. The ICRC confirmed the attack, highlighting that their work in Rakhine State provides 80,000 people a month with essential aid including food, healthcare, shelter, COVID-19 prevention assistance, and sanitation and hygiene support. On 29 October, in two separate incidents, the Myanmar navy continued its attacks injuring nine civilians during heavy artillery firing into communities forcing villagers to flee near Sakka Ray and Thet Pone Villages in Rakhine State. Targeting of civilians, including those carrying aid, is a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions, a violation of other international humanitarian law provisions, a breach of international human rights law, and a potential war crime. Impunity is rife for crimes perpetrated by the Myanmar military, who have persecuted ethnic and religious minorities for decades with complete disregard for life.  This mentality is endemic in all ranks of the military and as perpetrators have evaded accountability and justice for decades of violations, it has only served to embolden them to continue to commit such acts time and time again. In an incident earlier this year, a World Health Organization driver carrying swabs for COVID-19 testing was fatally shot, and accountability has not been addressed for the incident despite an investigation committee set up by the government.

This is not the first time the military has deliberately targeted civilians. During the Myanmar military’s clearance operations of Rohingya in 2017, the mode of warfare was to raze Rohingya villages through mass killings, torture, rape and sexual violence, and burning of villages. According to eye-witness interviews conducted by the Kaladan Press, the Myanmar military forces used inactive Telenor Telecommunication towers as sniper posts to shoot at Rohingya attempting to flee from Alethankyaw Village, in August 2017. This incident exemplifies the link between businesses in Myanmar and its potential contribution to human rights violations. The Committee Seeking Justice for Alethankyaw, has filed a complaint with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) against Telenor (whose majority owner is the Norwegian government), saying that Telenor failed to conduct a risk assessment and a thorough investigation in adherence with the OECD guidelines. At present, Telenor is complying with the Myanmar Ministry of Transport and Communications directive to limit internet traffic in nine townships in Rakhine and Chin States, impeding citizen’s freedom of information, making it almost impossible to access crucial information about COVID-19 and ongoing armed conflict and its impact on civilians.

Yet, in spite of Myanmar’s continued violations of human rights, Norway, US, EU and other prominent nations on the world stage have not placed stringent enough requirements on businesses operating in Myanmar, nor do they ensure companies based in their jurisdictions comply fully with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (GPBHR). The US federal government and private sector recently renewed their continued support of economic development in Myanmar through direct investment and exports. The EU says it intends to take a ‘balanced’ approach to supporting Myanmar’s democratic transition, advocating for accountability and condemning systemic discrimination against Rohingya, while continuing to support Myanmar’s electoral process and investment.

Yet, the EU funded the STEP Democracy Programme’s mVoter 2020 app which labelled Rohingya candidates as ‘Bengali’, denied their identity and further disenfranchising them in Myanmar’s discriminatory electoral system. Justice For Myanmar spokesperson, Yanadar Maung states that “The role of international organizations and donors supporting Myanmar’s election must be to ensure the election is conducted to democratic standards in accordance with international human rights.” On the face of it appears contractionary for the EU to support an election that cannot be considered to be free and fair under accepted democratic norms, and one which has almost completely disenfranchised Rohingya and other ethnic and religious minorities.

On the other hand Swiss company Stucky recently withdrew from the Upper Yeywa dam project in Shan State after civilians were targeted by the Myanmar military and conflict reignited in the region. This came only after advocacy from human rights organizations, such as Shan Human Rights Foundation and Burma Campaign UK. This decision by Stucky follows an earlier move by shipping giant Maersk in early October to refuse to use military owned ports. However, many other businesses operate in situations where they contribute, either directly or indirectly, to conflict and related human rights violations. Additionally, international businesses are linked to enter into relationships with military and crony businesses, which results in funding the Myanmar military’s brutal campaigns against ethnic and religious minority communities.

Lacking proper domestic safeguards to protect vulnerable sections of society from exploitation, oppression or persecution, international businesses operating in Myanmar must adhere to their responsibilities under the GPBHR and do human rights due diligence before entering into the Myanmar economy and take responsibility by responding with swift and effective actions when human rights issues arise after entering the Myanmar economy. In this regard in order to respond to the genocide against the Rohingya in 2017 and ongoing crimes against humanity and war crimes particularly in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States, they must divest their financial interests, in accordance with the recommendations of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar.

Furthermore, the international community must hold the Myanmar military and government to account for rights violations committed against people of Myanmar, particularly the crimes against humanity and war crimes against ethnic and religious minorities. Especially, the international governments must ensure their countries’ business operations in Myanmar stop enabling or aiding the military and government which continue to commit grave crimes against the civilians. In addition, they must impose targeted sanctions against the military and crony businesses. The time has long passed where only soft-handed diplomacy, coupled with economic and development aid can be advocated for.


[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

Resources from the past week


Statements and Press Releases

Myanmar Army Trying to Incite Violence Between Rohingya and Rakhine

By 29 Rohingya Organizations

Open Letter Appealing to Stop the Ongoing Construction of Dam on the Namtu or Myitnge River

By Action for Shan State Rivers and 2000 local villagers

နမ္မတူမြစ်(ခေါ်)မြစ်ငယ်မြစ်ပေါ် တည်ဆောက်နေသည့် အထက်ရဲရွာ ရေကာတာစီမံကိန်းနှင့် နမ္မတူ (သီပေါ) ရေကာတာများ ရပ်တန့်ပေးရန် အိတ်ဖွင့်စာပေးပို့ခြင်း

By Action for Shan State Rivers and 2000 local villagers

Local Communities Welcome Withdrawal of Swiss Company Stucky from Upper Yeywa Dam Project

By Action for Shan State Rivers

ဆွစ်ဇာလန်နိုင်ငံ Stucky ကုမ္ပဏီမှ အထက်ရဲရွာရေကာတာဆောက်လုပ်ရေးမှနှုတ်ထွက်ခြင်းကို ဒေသခံ ပြည်သူ လူထုများမှဝမ်းမြောက်ခြင်း

By Action for Shan State Rivers

Statement on Violations of Ethnic Media Freedom during the Myanmar Election

By BNI Multimedia Group

Myanmar: Ensure the Right to Vote Ahead of Elections

By Fortify Rights

GNI Letter to UN Special Rapporteur Irene Khan: Restrictions on Freedom of Expression in Myanmar

By Global Network Initiative

Myanmar: Election Commission Lacks Transparency

By Human Rights Watch

Myanmar Authorities Must Adhere to Its Obligation Under International Humanitarian Law

By International Campaign for Aakan

Myanmar’s 2020 General Elections: A Vote with No Confidence for Many Ethnic and Religious Minorities

By Progressive Voice

Press briefing notes on Myanmar

By UN High Commissioner for Human Rights



New Approaches to the Peace Seeking Process in Burma/Myanmar

By Federal Law Academy

A Vote with No Confidence: Myanmar’s 2020 General Elections and Rights of Ethnic and Religious Minorities

By Progressive Voice

Burma’s 2020 Elections and Ongoing Atrocity Risks Facing the Rohingya Population

By United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Practical Prevention: How the Genocide Convention’s Obligation to Prevent Applies to Myanmar

By United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”