In Myanmar, private sector under pressure to stand with Rohingya

Rohingya refugees wait in a food distribution line near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh. Photo by: Ashique Rushdi / USAID / CC BY-NC

BANGKOK — Activists are once again looking to Unilever, a major investor in Myanmar, to take a stand against the country’s persecution of the Rohingya minority.

Last week, a global civil society group known as Sisters of Rohingya issued a call for a boycott of Unilever’s Dove products, which the group notes are closely tied to the company’s projected brand of valuing the health and well-being of women.

“Unilever tells us women that as a corporation they have respect for our lives and are committed to our equality,” the statement on their website reads.

This message is at odds with the consumer goods company’s investment in Myanmar, the statement continues, “where the military are committing systematic rape with total impunity as part of their genocide against the Rohingya people.”

Unilever’s first factory in Myanmar opened in 2013, the same year the company announced it would invest 500 million euros ($622 million) in the Southeast Asian nation over the course of a decade. In 2017, they announced a joint venture with Europe & Asia Commercial Company Ltd, and currently employ around 2,000 people across the country through direct and indirect employment.

Sisters of Rohingya is organizing a protest at Unilever’s head offices in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, with a date yet to be announced. Devex could not reach a member of the activist group for comment — but the outright call for Unilever to cease operations in Myanmar is unlikely to meet with success, according to Jamila Hanan, organizer of the separate #WeAreAllRohingyaNow social media campaign.

Hanan launched #WeAreAllRohingyaNow in January 2017, calling on Unilever, Nestlé and several other big investors to come together to speak out and put an end to Rohingya persecution that had already worsened.

“When we started our campaign, things were bad, but they’d come to a pause,” she said. “We were hopeful that there was a window of opportunity then to encourage multinationals to do what they could.”

Nestlé responded to Hanan via email in October 2017, saying they were “concerned by the situation affecting displaced people in Myanmar and Bangladesh,” according to Christian Frutiger, vice president and global head of public affairs for Nestlé.

The Swiss giant, which began direct operations in Myanmar in 2013 and has invested approximately $25 million in the country, has yet to make a public statement on the Rohingya crisis. The company reiterated its recognition of concern over the seriousness of the situation in an email to Devex: “We hope efforts by governments and the international community will be able to address the humanitarian issue effectively,” a Nestlé spokesperson wrote.

“Myanmar is a fast growing economy. Investing and partnering with local businesses helps us contribute to the country’s future development,” the spokesperson wrote, adding that they are adding to the country’s socioeconomic development by providing training and employment opportunities for a young workforce.

Nestlé announced its long-term ambitions in support of Sustainable Development Goals in March 2017, focused on improving livelihoods and reducing environmental harm.

To Hanan, it seems that most investors in the area have conveniently ignored the plight of the Rohingya, although Unilever “has behind the scenes probably done more than any other multinational corporation,” she said.

Unilever CEO Paul Polman himself responded to Hanan’s original email, she noted, and in February 2017, Polman signed an open letter to the United Nations citing concerns about Myanmar’s military offensives in Rakhine State. Later, the corporation tweeted that it stands with the Rohingya.  

Unilever’s public statement was in many ways expected, considering the Unilever under Polman’s leadership has established itself globally as an advocate for — and example of — the importance of business aligned with sustainable development.

The corporation has gone on to take concrete action, Unilever’s director of communications and external affairs for Southeast Asia and Australasia, Shweta Shukla, told Devex in an email exchange. In response to the recent crisis, Unilever is supporting refugees in Bangladesh through their Vaseline Healing project, which makes vital skincare available through the Turkish Red Crescent Society, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and Bangladesh Red Crescent Society.

The multinational is also currently supporting farmers on sustainable palm sugar sourcing, partnering with schools to educate children on hygiene and oral care, and creating recycling and waste management initiatives, Shweta noted.

“We are working to make a positive and sustainable impact on the people of Myanmar through local talent development and by providing communities access to better health, hygiene, and nutrition,” Shweta said.

These efforts are appreciated by #WeAreAllRohingyaNow, although real change won’t be achieved until large multinationals unite and think bigger, Hanan said.

“Up until now, multinationals seem to be engaged with environmental protections and ensuring no human rights abuses are taking place within their supply chains,” she said. “We feel that it’s long overdue that multinational corporations consider in more depth the impact of their investments and do more to protect not just the environment, but also the vulnerable populations and minorities in the areas in which they’re investing.”

If a number of corporations worked together to put out a statement of concern on the current Rohingya crisis, that action would grab attention in a way other efforts haven’t, Hanan said.

“Together, corporations are frequently much more powerful than government or ambassadors, and we the people want them to do better,” she added.

Read more Devex coverage on the Rohingya crisis.

About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.

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