Myanmar: Resolution avoidance

I have seen that there is a petition that will be presented to Parliament in Malaysia, signed by NGOs, calling for the withdrawal of Petronas from Myanmar.

I am really sorry, but this is just absurd.

No one seems to have comprehended the first thing about business and economic influence. Not only is it near impossible that Petronas will leave Myanmar; making this demand basically futile; but it totally misses the fact that Petronas HAS influence by BEING there.

Think of it on a smaller scale.  If someone is abusive to you, and you happen to know someone who is friends with that person; would you actually just tell them “stop being his friend because he is abusive”, or would you tell them “your friend is abusing me, can you please talk to him and get him to stop?”

It seems to me that, at least in terms of a political solution to the Rohingya issue, activists have been devoting themselves to essentially symbolic efforts rather than practical ones.  I don’t know if this is due to insincerity  or ignorance; but the result (or lack of result) is the same.

Western military support for Myanmar is minuscule to the point that it plays almost no role whatsoever in the army’s capacity to carry out the genocide.  The recent bill introduced in the US Congress to prohibit certain types of military assistance and cooperation is being hailed as a significant step; though it comes after more than half of the Rohingya population has already been driven out of the country, and even though it will have zero actual impact on the army’s existing capabilities.  Even this is a symbolic act.

The recent Council on Foreign Relations article talking about this bill, and what other steps might benefit the Rohingya, makes no mention of multinational corporations when listing other global actors with the power to influence the Myanmar regime; though the economic development of Rakhine state, and the creation of conditions favourable to foreign investors are absolutely the key elements driving the ethnic cleansing.  The article is not discussing steps for resolving the crisis, it is discussing steps for continuing to avoid resolving it.

We are at a point now where the Rohingya issue is no longer even going to have a political solution, and it will become exclusively an issue of humanitarian relief, which will basically never end.  The regime has been practical and realistic and systematic in pursuit of its agenda all along; but activists and NGOs advocating the Rohingya cause have been anything but.  The word “Rohingya” is now going to be synonymous with the word “refugee”, and it will remain so for generations.



  1. As much as I usually share your analysis, I have to respectfully disagree with a few your points in this post.

    I find the petition asking Petronas to withdraw from Myanmar to be strategically smart. As a rallying call, the demand for withdrawal is designed well for organizing support. In addition, it puts public pressure on Petronas to justify its presence in Myanmar by using its influence with the Myanmar government to help end the violence and repression against the Rohingya. I’ve seen this strategy work in the past with foreign oil companies in Myanmar, Nigeria, Indonesia, and other countries.

    It is also important to understand the power of symbolism. While symbolic acts lack direct economic and political power, use of symbolism can be an effective tool in mobilizing people and institutions to use their economic and political power. The trick is to use symbolic acts effectively.

    The “Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act of 2017” that was introduced on Thursday in the U.S. Senate includes comprehensive political and economic sanctions on the Burmese army and its business interests. In addition to stringent curbs on U.S. military-to-military assistance to Burma, the bill includes provisions that sanction Burmese military officers, sanction military-owned companies, and even ban U.S. imports of jade and rubies. That last sanction would have significant impact on the Burmese military’s revenues with which they buy their weapons. Check out the reports of Global Witness that detail the Burmese military’s dominance of the jade trade.

    It is true that the plight of the Rohingya will take at least decades to solve. Immediate humanitarian relief is needed both in Bangladesh and Myanmar. The international community also needs to sanction the Burmese army to demonstrate that it will suffer consequences for its campaign of repression and violence against the Rohingya. If the army gets away with impunity, it will continue its attacks on the Rohingya, Kachin, Shan, Karen, and other ethnic minorities in Myanmar.

    I simply don’t know what the long term solution is for the Rohingya. At this rate, they will be the next Kurds or Palestinians; a stateless people. There is a lot of talk about sending Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar and/or resettling them in other countries. But I, for one, would like the international community to take the radical act of asking Rohingya refugees the question: “Where do you want to live?”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A few points…
    Symbolic acts can very often have a negative effect on mobilisation insofar as they do not have a direct impact, and activists ultimately feel that their efforts were in vain. In order for a symbolic act to create pressure, it generally has to be within the context of some sort of democratic dynamic whereby powerful institutions understand that the symbolic action expresses a broad-based sentiment that has the potential to manifest in practical ways.

    Any examples that pertain to corporations like Shell or Exxon, or any other private oil companies might feasibly fall within this sort of dynamic. Petronas is state-owned; that is a key difference. You cannot talk about the Malaysian economy without talking about Petronas, and vice versa/. There are very few (if any) options for applying practical consumer pressure on Petronas.

    With regard to the military sanctions, as I said, there is going to be very little impact on a practical level. The same is true regarding jade and rubies. The top two importers of precious stones from Myanmar are China and India. Trade with the US in jade and rubies from Myanmar can continue with only one extra step, buying from China, India, or Thailand. This just adds some complication to the export of jade and rubies, which will, of course, also drive up the price. The army has already dealt with this type of ban in the past, and knows quite well how to navigate it.

    Again, in my view, asking Petronas to withdraw from Myanmar is unrealistic, and has more potential to negatively impact mobilisation than to positively impact it. This strategy falls into the common mistake of demanding companies behave as moral entities, which they are not.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I respectfully disagree with you that a public call on Petronas to withdraw from Myanmar would hurt mobilization. In my experience, a clear moral call greatly aids public mobilization. It places into stark relief the fact that corporations – and indeed governments – are amoral entities. Thus, it highlights the need to mobilize the political and economic power needed to force a corporation to make the right moral choice.

      You are correct in pointing out that Petronas is government-owned. Consequently, to put pressure on the company, we need to organize pressure from the Malaysian government, from Petronas’ customers, and on Petronas’ reputation and brands through the media, especially social media.

      I would highly recommend that anyone targeting Petronas read the company’s annual report. Company annual reports – especially the 10K reports required of companies traded on U.S. stock exchanges – often contain all the information corporate campaigners need to hit a company’s key pressure points: consumer, shareholder, reputation/brands, and regulatory. Find it here:…/PETRONASAnnualReport2016.pdf

      I agree with you that it is unlikely that Petronas will withdraw from Myanmar. (Although in the past oil companies have withdrawn from Burma amidst shareholder, consumer, and media campaigns, including Amoco, Texaco, ARCO, and Premier.) What will happen is that the campaign will press Petronas and its owner, the Malaysian government, to demonstrate what pressure they are putting on the Myanmar government to end its repression and violence against the Rohingya. The campaign will also serve as a vehicle for further organzing Malaysians into a movement of support for and solidarity with the Rohingya.

      With regard to jade and rubies, it is true that most Burmese jade is first exported to China for processing while most Burmese rubies are first exported to Thailand for cutting. From there, the cut jade and rubies goes to jewelers throughout the world, primarily in weallthier countries of the West, Middle East, and Asia. In the past, US law, the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003 as amended by the JADE Act of 2008, banned the importation into the US of any gems originally mined in Myanmar, including those cut and processed in third countries, such as China and Thailand. The same ban on Burmese gem imports is included in the new “Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act of 2017” (S.2060). If past experience is any indication, this will greatly restrict the revenues that the Burmese army receives from the gem trade and is therefore an effective sanction on the military.

      Let’s continue this very useful debate as we develop together a powerful campaign of pressure on Burma’s army to end its repression and violence against the Rohingya. Thank you so much for sparking this debate, Shahid.


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