YANGON, MYANMAR - A Belgian company has become the first to announce it is cutting ties with Myanmar’s military after a United Nations fact-finding mission called on businesses to sever all financial links to the country’s generals.
Satellite communications firm Newtec said in a statement it would “follow the recommendations by the UN and stop commercial ties with Mytel,” a local mobile phone operator partially owned by the military.
The call from a panel of three UN experts came a year after they first said Myanmar’s top generals should be prosecuted for genocide for their role in a 2017 crackdown believed to have killed thousands of Rohingya Muslims.
“We will never knowingly sell to any organization or company linked to the Tatmadaw’s campaign of violence… and the atrocities committed against the Rohingya,” Newtec said, using the local name for Myanmar's military.
A company that handles public relations for Mytel did not respond to a request for comment.
Christopher Sidoti, a human rights lawyer and member of the UN panel, praised Newtec for following the recommendations.
“It’s a very welcome decision. We’re pleased to see such prompt action on their part and certainly hope that it’s the first among many,” he told VOA.
But Mark Farmaner, a human rights campaigner who named Newtec on a “dirty list” of firms doing business with Myanmar’s military early this year, said Newtec should have acted sooner.
“Newtec have known for nine months that they were working for the Burmese military, and didn't care,” he told VOA, using an alternative word for Myanmar.
“They are only ending their involvement now because of negative publicity after the fact-finding mission report, not because it is morally the right thing to do.”
Threat of Legal Action
In a letter sent last November, the company’s CEO, Thomas Van den Driessche, threatened to sue Farmaner’s pressure group, Burma Campaign UK, if it publicized Newtec’s relationship with the military.
“If you would decide on including Newtec on your ‘Dirty List’, we reserve all rights and will hold you liable for any damages that Newtec might suffer from such actions,” he wrote.
He also incorrectly stated that Mytel was “28% owned by the government” and "in no way involved" with the military. "Your allegations are therefore slanderous," he added.
In fact the 28% share is held by a military-owned company named Star High.
In response Farmaner wrote: “You seem a little uninformed about the situation in Burma and your own client in the country.”
He added: “You may think that as a large company you can bully a small campaign group with legal threats but we will not be intimidated.”
Newtec did not respond to a request for comment about its threat of legal action.
Companies Reviewing Military Ties
Sidoti said Newtec’s decision was “one of several pieces of good news” the UN mission had received since publishing a report last week detailing the generals’ business interests and naming dozens of foreign companies with ties to the military.
“We’ve had a number of reports coming back to us of questions being asked in parliaments and companies that are reviewing their associations with some of the Myanmar military-aligned companies,” he added.
Myanmar’s military has not responded to last week’s report but it has repeatedly denied the mission’s allegations and says its campaign against the Rohingya was a legitimate counter insurgency operation.
The country’s foreign ministry said in a statement last week that it “categorically rejects the latest UN report and its conclusions.” It added that the fact-finding mission was established “based on unfounded allegations.”
Officials at the ministry did not answer several calls seeking comment on Newtec’s decision to cut ties with Mytel.