Message from the
Director

This is the first Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB) e-newsletter since the military took over on 1 February. Rather than the usual format, this message to MCRB stakeholders takes a wider look at responsible business in the current political crisis, and what this means for MCRB’s future activities.

Since 1 February MCRB has been focused on our team’s welfare and safety. We have seen that employee and customer safety is also the top priority of all businesses, both local and foreign. We have shared tips with companies and other organisations how they can support staff digital safety and mental welfare, including responding to detention of loved ones. The MCRB team has also taken up the opportunity of a group workplace counselling session to share their feelings. Counselling Corner also have regular free online sessions.

We know the other main priority of business in Myanmar right now is commercial survival. The survey undertaken in April by ten Chambers of Commerce demonstrated very clearly the massive economic impact of the coup on the Myanmar economy and employment, and showed this to be far more significant than COVID-19. Main challenges for business are disruptions to banking (77%), internet (70%) and employee safety (66%). The survey also showed that the biggest impact has been felt by Myanmar companies, particularly SMEs which unlike multinationals, have little ability to absorb it. Against this very negative business outlook, and with foreign investors now scaling back and avoiding Myanmar, MCRB has been reflecting on what responsible business means in the current crisis and how the Centre can be useful to our stakeholders.

Survey

Human Rights Risks

As Surya Deva, the Vice-Chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights commented on 12 May “the risk of gross human rights violations has greatly increased in Myanmar, action by States and human rights due diligence by business, and investors, should be rapidly and proportionately heightened”. MCRB has contributed to collective discussions by companies and other stakeholders – both within Myanmar and internationally, including with the UN - on human rights risks and how mitigate them. We have also given feedback to individual companies on navigating the business and human rights dilemmas they face, such as those outlined by EuroCham’s Garment Group.

What human rights ‘leverage’ does business have in the current crisis? MCRB has sought to facilitate collective action by both international and Myanmar businesses, both concerning their own spheres of influence, and the wider social and political context. On 19 February,  in response to a request from some companies, we published a joint Statement by Concerned Businesses Operating in Myanmar. This focused on the importance to companies and society of the rule of law and respect for human rights, democracy and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression and association. Over 230 companies signed the statement, around two-thirds of them operating only in Myanmar, the rest multinational.  The situation has deteriorated significantly since mid-February, and we are no longer actively seeking company sign-up. But any company still wishing to align publicly with the sentiments in the 19 February statement should email info@myanmar-responsiblebusiness.org.

 

Digital Rights

Although we have put plans for a 5th Myanmar Digital Rights Forum on hold, another area where we continue to facilitate collective and multistakeholder action is on ‘digital rights’ such as privacy, access to the internet and freedom of expression online. Pre-coup, on 28 January, Data Privacy Day, we highlighted the importance of data protection.  We have consistently advocated since 2015 for the flaws in Myanmar’s legal framework for ICT to be fixed, so that companies are able to meet their responsibility to respect human rights, including the right to privacy. Unfortunately, the increase in internet shutdown and website blocking since 2019, increased online surveillance, and since 1 February the frequent use of Article 505a of the Penal Code to prosecute users of social media have led to further deterioration in digital rights. These issues are of concern to all ICT users and to responsible ICT businesses, as were the proposals in February’s draft cybersecurity law.  We encouraged businesses to identify provisions in the draft law which would undermine their ability to respect human rights, particularly the right to privacy, and to highlight these to the regulator.

Elements of the draft law, including on personal data protection, and ‘fake news’, appear instead to have been included in amendments to the Electronic Transactions Law (ETL). A consolidated version of the ETL is available in EN and MM on our website. We encourage everyone to familiarise themselves with new Myanmar legal obligations to protect personal data, particularly when responding to broad demands from the authorities for personal data, and to challenge those which are not legally compliant.

On 15 May, to mark two months of mobile data shutdown, we facilitated a statement together with the Global Network Initiative, its member companies and others. This highlights that lack of access to mobile data severely impacts the rights of Myanmar phone users, and that the current ‘whitelisting’ of a limited number of apps is discriminatory, and will retard Myanmar’s economy and development.  Again, any company or organisation with an interest in seeing Myanmar’s entire population fully back online and who wants to join the statement should email info@myanmar-responsiblebusiness.org.

Private Security

In 2020, we embarked on a study of the private security company sector, with the support of the Voluntary Principles Association. The heightened risks to staff and customers that many companies – particularly customer-facing ones such as banks and shops - have had to manage since 1 February have only served to underline the importance of having trained security professionals who understand human rights. We plan future engagement on this issue with companies and other stakeholders when it is appropriate to do so. Please contact info@myanmar-responsibusiness.org if you have an interest in this topic.

 

Pwint Thit Sa/Transparency in Myanmar Enterprises

The Myanmar version of our Pwint Thit Sa/Transparency in Myanmar Enterprises report is now available, together with the English version which was launched in December 2020 and has been downloaded over 2200 times. We believe it is essential that businesses must be transparent and engage with traditional and social media and other stakeholders about their operations. This is particularly true if regulatory requirements for disclosure are not being enforced, and where journalists, unions and human rights defenders are under threat and cannot easily play their roles. It is in the interest of the business to publish online an accurate description of the company, its current activities and relevant news. This is even more important where companies are having to deal with rumours which can put their staff and businesses at risk, and face consumer boycotts.



queue for ATM machine

What Next?

Although we have had to pause or abandon most other activities – particularly those which involved government engagement – we have also stayed in touch as far as possible with our NGO and civil society partners in addition to our business contacts. We have shared views on operating constraints, priorities and future plans, against the uncertain background which we all face.  Since last year we have also been discussing with various stakeholders whether we can relaunch a UN Global Compact Local Network in Myanmar. This is still on our agenda. The last 100 days have particularly highlighted the need for companies to work out what the UNGC’s ‘Business for Peace’ initiative means in Myanmar’s current context(s).

As MCRB considers how to move forward, one area of continued focus will be promotion of  the ‘elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation’ (Principle 6 of the UN Global Compact) including disability.  In January, we held a second joint workshop with Access Israel on disability, this one focussed on assistive technologies. Inter alia, this highlighted the importance of access to mobile internet for persons with disabilities, both inside and outside the workplace.

Another area on which we hope to continue to work, together with partners, is the environment, including biodiversity, business and human rights. We fear that Myanmar’s natural resources will be increasingly under threat from exploitative and damaging extraction, much of it illegal, and that local communities will have difficulties preventing this, in the face of a weak planning and regulatory framework.

Stay in Touch

As Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business updates its strategy to fit the new context, we welcome feedback and suggestions, from businesses and civil society, particularly those in Myanmar, on how we can work together on responsible business in the face of many serious challenges.

I hope you will stay in touch, and please stay safe.

Vicky Bowman,
Director
Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business