Chris Sidoti: US-imposed banking isolation of the junta biting hard

September 15th, 2023  •  Category News
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Chris Sidoti in the Sydney Morning Herald.


Beer at gunpoint: Myanmar generals deal with local boycott

Chris Barrett
Myanmar’s military regime is reportedly threatening at gunpoint bar and shop owners who don’t stock a beer manufactured by its junta-owned company.
The threats are designed to help soften the financial pain of a widespread boycott of products linked to the armed forces.
More than 2½ years since it toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and seized power in a bloody coup, the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, is grappling with renewed protests by citizens.
Among the products citizens have boycotted is military-owned Myanmar Beer, which before the coup enjoyed 80 per cent market share in the South-East Asian nation.
Myanmar news outlet The Irrawaddy reported that officials and troops have begun threatening supermarket chains and shops, restaurants and bars in the main city of Yangon which fail to offer items linked to the military, and ordering them to resume sales.
“[The boycott] has had a definite impact on the military. Therefore, it is cracking down at gunpoint,” said Curtin University Associate Professor Htwe Htwe Thein, an expert on economic development in Myanmar.
“There are a lot of beer drinkers in Myanmar and Myanmar Beer was the top-selling [product] for retailers. The demand outstripped supply before. That turned around after the military coup because people are boycotting.”
Myanmar Brewery was majority-owned by Japanese drinks producer Kirin in a joint venture with military conglomerate Myanmar Economic Holdings. Kirin sold its 51 per cent stake last year for $US140 million ($216 million) as part of a post-coup exodus of foreign operations. Beer drinkers had already turned to other brands such as Heineken, Carlsberg, Chang, and Tiger, and away from the previously dominant local brew.
Kirin tax filings leaked to whistleblower site Distributed Denial of Secrets revealed the brewery’s sales fell by 30 per cent in 2021 “due to a decrease in production volume caused by material shortages and other factors, as well as restrictions on sales activities”.
Activists have also called on the public to abandon other junta-associated products, such as cigarettes, and encouraged people not to pay their electricity bills, angering the regime.
Thein does not believe the so-called State Administration Council’s latest move to recover lost revenue from beer sales by force will be successful.
“At gunpoint they can force the retailers to carry [the beer], but people will be even more determined not to buy it,” she said.
The military has ruled the country formerly called Burma for most of the 75 years since independence from Britain. Its tentacles extend throughout the economy, either formally – via umbrella groups which control more than 100 companies – or informally through cronies with ties to the junta.
Its presence in construction, tourism and hotels and its stranglehold on lucrative exports such as oil, gas and jade pour billions into its coffers, help finance the violent crackdown against opponents that has killed more than 4000 people, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a non-profit monitoring group.
Yadanar Maung, the spokesperson for activist organisation Justice For Myanmar, said the mass boycott was unprecedented and wounded the armed forces, but called for more to be done to limit the flow of money into the country, including for a toughening of sanctions by the Australian government. International sanctions led by the US, have imposed restrictions on state-owned banks to curb access to foreign currency and arms.
“Australia should urgently catch up with the sanctions already imposed by its allies, including on junta controlled state-owned enterprises, and show some leadership in its own region to support the Myanmar people’s struggle for democracy,” Maung said.
Despite international pressure, the governing generals retain close relations with Russia and China, its primary arms suppliers, and a May report by United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Tom Andrews said dozens of entities based in Singapore had been involved in supplying $US254 million ($378 million) of military-related equipment to the junta.
Andrews also reported that Singapore banks had been used extensively by arms dealers in transactions with the regime.
The Singaporean foreign affairs minister told parliament in July the government in the city-state was investigating the claims, saying it takes them “very seriously”. This month Singapore’s United Overseas Bank (UOB) announced it was cutting ties with financial institutions in Myanmar.
Chris Sidoti, a former UN investigator on the treatment of the Rohingya and a member of the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar advisory group, said the US-imposed banking isolation of the junta was biting hard and described UOB’s move as significant.
“I’ve received, just in the last day or two, unconfirmable reports that the military … individual generals … have been moving their money out of Singapore because they’re worried about the Singapore government at some point freezing those accounts,” he said.
Attempts to contact a Myanmar regime spokesperson were unsuccessful.