Democracy advocates in Myanmar are calling on three international beermakers to pull out of the country, alleging that taxes they pay to the military junta support crimes against humanity.
The covert activist group Justice for Myanmar last month released a report that implicated Heineken, Carlsberg, and Thai Beverage, all of which have operated in Myanmar after the Feb. 1, 2021 coup. Their tax payments have collectively amounted to U.S.$155 million.
“Paying taxes to people who commit war crimes is directly participating in those crimes and therefore the large foreign companies have to decide if they will continue to participate in the crimes of the military council or stop paying taxes,” Justice for Myanmar spokesperson Yadanar Maung told RFA’s Burmese Service.
A young woman from Yangon, who requested anonymity for safety reasons, told RFA that any beer brand that supports the junta must be boycotted.
"Before the coup, I only drank Myanmar Beer brand. But after the coup, Myanmar Beer had to be completely boycotted, so I switched to other brands,” she said. “Now, if Heineken, which is the most popular drink in the market, has been added to the boycott list, we have to choose from other options.”
Every company that cooperates with the junta should pull out from Myanmar as soon as possible as they must be held responsible and accountable, Me Htet Nay of the Nyan Lynn Thit Analytica political research and rights group told RFA.
“I understand that companies with big investments have to pay a lot of money in taxes, so they have more responsibility for the oppression of the people. … It is best in their interests that they leave,” said Me Htet Nay.
He said that the junta’s sources of income should be cut off as it spends most of the tax money on the military budget that oppresses the people.
Japanese-owned Kirin Company, which had been working with Myanmar beer, sold its shares and left Myanmar in 2022, a year after the military coup.
Pro-democracy activists are already boycotting products produced by military enterprises, including Andaman Gold beer, Myanmar beer, Mandalay beer, Dagon brand alcohol and beer, and Ruby and Premium Gold cigarettes.
The domestic boycott also extends beyond beer to include Sugar MEC brand sugar, Pure hand sanitizer, Bandoola Transport, Mytel and MEC Tel mobile operators, Shwe Nan Taw jewelry store, Ngwe Pin Lal brand, Star Mart and 547 mini marts, Dentomec toothpaste, and others.
Since the boycott, sales of Myanmar Beer have halved from $11 million in revenue before the coup to just over $5 million within a year of the coup, the company's records show.
A liquor store owner in Sagaing, who refused to be named for security reasons, told RFA that the demand for domestic beer has cratered.
"In the past, we used to sell Myanmar beer a lot when it was available. Now there is no demand for it anymore,” he said. “No one asks for Myanmar beer these days. Myanmar beer is not transported to our areas anymore.”
The boycott has been extended to the three international breweries, but consumers may find it difficult to target them because they produce more than their main brand in Myanmar.
"I don't sell Heineken either. I only sell Chang, Tiger, and ABC beer mainly,” said the liquor store owner.
Netherlands-based Heineken N.V. produces not only Heineken, but also ABC, Tiger, Regal Seven and Bawdar beer in Myanmar.
Meanwhile the Danish Carlsberg Group makes Carlsberg, Yoma, Tuborg and Black Eagle Stout. ThaiBev, meanwhile, sells several different whiskey brands in Myanmar.
The three companies alone paid around $27.6 million in special goods taxes to the junta between October and December 2021, Justice for Myanmar reported. They additionally paid $7 million in income taxes over the same three-month period.
Neither Heineken nor ThaiBev responded to RFA’s email inquiries regarding the accusations.
Carlsberg responded to RFA that all of its subsidiaries are subject to local laws in all the markets in which they operate.
“This means that, like any other company, we are obliged to pay taxes and duties, whether in Myanmar, Denmark or any other market,” the company said.
Carlsberg also said it had a positive impact on Myanmar’s economy, employing 430 people and supporting 30,000 jobs as a result of its presence there. The Danish brewer said it is in a joint venture with the local MGS Breweries, and that its partner has no direct commercial links to sanctioned entities and individuals.
“We take respect for human rights in Myanmar extremely seriously. Our human rights programme follows the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP). This work is ongoing and includes concrete efforts to prevent, address and remedy human rights abuses connected to our value chain,” said Carlsberg, adding that it conducts human rights due diligence.
Opponents of the coup that have organized into armed People’s Defense Forces often target shipments of products made by military-owned companies, and destroy it before it gets to market.
Because of their actions, the transport and sale of military-produced alcohol, beer and other products have become almost non-existent, said Kyak Kyee, a soldier of 703 Battalion of the People’s Defense Force based in Magway.
“We discovered boycott products such as Myanmar and Dagon beer, Ruby and Premium Gold cigarettes a lot in the beginning of the revolution,” he said. “We warned those who transport them and made them sign a pledge not to do it again. We burn and destroy the products right in front of the people. Currently, there are no military-produced goods in our regions. Such goods are no longer found in our checkpoints, either.”
RFA attempted to reach junta spokesperson Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, regarding these issues, but phone calls went unanswered.
Min Lwin Oo, who is in charge of the mobilization sub-committee of the Democracy Movement Strike Committee (Dawei), said that refusing to buy products made by military companies is a valid way to weaken the military.
“Just as a retired American military professor said, we are in a difficult position to confront the military junta on the military front alone,” he said. “If we can demolish the economic pillars of the military, it will weaken the military junta. I think [it] is a very effective method for the revolution.”
On the other hand, he pointed out that people may be faced with a shortage of job opportunities, because of the domination of military-related businesses, and the boycott would leave them with fewer choices and rising product prices, when large international companies pull out from Myanmar.
Translated by Myo Min Aung. Edited by Eugene Whong.