by Kler Eh Soe
I am a refugee from Burma living in the USA. I am from a Karen ethnic minority region and spent my childhood on the run from the Burmese army. I was lucky. Other residents of my village were killed in indiscriminate Burmese army attacks on civilians. Some were kidnapped and forced to join the army as soldiers or as porters. Some women from my village were raped by soldiers. I ended up finishing school in a refugee camp in Thailand. Even Thai refugee camps were not safe from Burmese army attacks. I am really grateful to the US government and the UN for giving me the opportunity to finally be safe here in America. I work in the USA and pay taxes. I am committed to contributing positively to my new community here. I also cannot forget how people I left behind in Burma are continuing to suffer and I see it as my duty to stand up for them.
It is with horror that I learnt that New Belgium, a certified B-Corp, is selling its business to Kirin, subject to the approval of employee-shareholders. Kirin is notorious as one of the key international business partners of the Burmese military. Burma’s military is notorious as one of the world’s worst rights abusers, having conducted clearance operations against ethnic minority peoples, including my own community, for decades. Clearance operations involve the killing of civilians, rape, forced relocation of villagers, destruction of property and slavery. In 2017, the Burmese army committed the crime of genocide, slaughtering and expelling masses of Rohingya minorities in Rakhine.
As the UN Fact-Finding Mission found in August of this year, the military’s criminal conduct is enabled by its immense business networks. These include two military conglomerates: Myanmar Economic Corporation and Myanma Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL). MEHL is a corrupt network of businesses that built its wealth through the theft of public assets. Shareholders of MEHL include Myanmar’s most notorious war criminals and the very military battalions that are responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity.
Kirin is notable among a very small number of international corporations that work in partnership with military conglomerates. Through its partnership with Kirin, MEHL receives massive revenue to fuel human rights abuses and the personal wealth of generals, fully outside of civilian oversight and bypassing the national budget. As a major global player in the beer market, Kirin also affords legitimacy to the military as a ‘regular’ business, when in fact, they are war criminals.
My community remains traumatised from the abuses inflicted on us by the Myanmar military and it was our hope that we can leave military influence behind us when we took refuge in the USA. However, New Belgium’s moves, thus far, to ignore the facts of Kirin’s potentially criminal conduct in Myanmar, is frightful. Kirin has a human rights policy but it does not extend to the human rights conduct of their business partners, the Myanmar military. Kirin has been called out by the UN, Amnesty International and human rights advocates for Burma but have only provided excuses or silence.
We now pray that New Belgium employee shareholders will do the right thing and take a stand for human rights in my country. Oppose Kirin’s takeover of New Belgium Brewing, unless Kirin ends their business partnership with the Burmese military. The Karen community has published an open letter to appeal to what we assume is our common values with New Belgium employees: Fundamental human rights and peace. Business can be a force for good.