On August 25, 2017, the Myanmar military launched a campaign of genocide, driving 740,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh and committing mass atrocities including killings, sexual violence, torture and destruction of property.
Less than a week later, on September 1, Myanmar’s military leadership held a lavish ceremony to collect donations from military and crony businesses. The ceremony, presided over by commander of the Rohingya genocide, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, took place in Bayintnaung Villa, Naypyidaw, named after a Bamar absolutist warrior king who the military uphold as a model of leadership. The generals, their cronies and business partners sat on carved heavy chairs made from teak, likely taken from the dwindling forests that belong to Myanmar’s ethnic nationalities, in a hall lit with chandeliers and draped with gold curtains.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing addressed the attendees, explicit about the objectives of the military’s fundraising. “The Bengali problem was a long-standing one which has become an unfinished job” he said, using “Bengali” as an attempt to erase Rohingya identity. “We openly declare that absolutely, our country has no Rohingya race,” he exclaimed.
As Rohingya villages burned, top generals summoned members of their cartel and cronies to the front of the room, one by one, who presented boxes of cash to the military leadership and received certificates of commendation for their support of military operations in Rakhine.
More public fundraisers were held by the military on September 10 and September 21, raising cash and in-kind contributions for the military in Rakhine and the construction of a border fence, and propagating the military’s rationale for genocide.
Among the biggest donors were Myanmar’s largest crony conglomerates, KBZ Group, donating US$2.47 million and Max Myanmar, donating US$976,857. Other local and international businesses also participated, showing their support for the military’s genocide against the Rohingya. These included Asia World, Aung Myin Thu Group, CB Bank, Eden Group, Htoo Group of Companies, IGE, International Gateway Group, International Language & Business Centre, K.T. Group, Kirin, Myanmar Combiz Group, Mytel, Myanmar Yang Tse, Wanbao, Shwe Than Lwin and Toyo Thai, as well as military conglomerates Myanmar Economic Corporation and Myanma Economic Holdings Limited, and their subsidiaries.
Additional fundraisers were held by the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development (UEHRD), a public-private partnership chaired by State Councillor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. UEHRD’s activities included raising funds for a border fence to prevent displaced Rohingya from returning to their homes. According to the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (UN FFM), “the purpose of the fence is revealed as one of several UEHRD projects aimed at ensuring the Rohingya cannot return to their communities and homeland.” Major UEHRD donors for the border fence were again KBZ, donating US$2.2 million and Max Myanmar, donating US$654,000.
Financing international crime is an international crime
The military’s genocide fundraising event took place during their “clearance operations” that involved well-publicised mass atrocities. At the events, the military made it clear that the donors were supporting military operations in Rakhine.
Under the Rome Statute, individuals can be held accountable before the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the crime of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression. Under Art. 25(c), criminal responsibility also arises when a person acts “For the purpose of facilitating the commission of such a crime, aids, abets or otherwise assists in its commission or its attempted commission, including providing the means for its commission.” The phrase “aids, abets or otherwise assists” includes knowingly providing financial, infrastructure or logistical support that is used in the commission of these crimes under international law. The military rhetoric of hate at the ceremonies makes it certain that the donors were“knowing."
In August 2019, the UN FFM investigated donations and concluded that “the Mission now has reasonable grounds to also conclude that officials from KBZ Group and Max Myanmar should be criminally investigated and, if appropriate, prosecuted for making a substantial and direct contribution to the commission of the crime against humanity of “other inhumane acts” and persecution as outlined above in the applicable legal framework on business officials and criminal liability.” The UN FFM also called for a criminal investigation of other donors to the military’s fundraisers and to UEHRD’s border fence fund, including Asia World and Eden Group, for “providing financial support to an organization directly committing crimes."
The responsibility of KBZ Group and Max Myanmar’s business partners
KBZ and Max Myanmar are Myanmar’s biggest crony conglomerates, having amassed immense wealth through lucrative business deals during military dictatorship and the military’s massive sell-off of public assets. Both are also business partners of the Myanmar military. KBZ mines jade and rubies with licences from MEHL and Max Myanmar has bought lucrative road construction contracts from MEHL. Once subjected to international sanctions because of their economic role supporting military dictatorship, their businesses have been normalised as part of the military-led transition to “disciplined democracy." This has enabled KBZ and Max Myanmar to form partnerships with major multinational corporations.
Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, businesses are obliged to operate in a way that prevents any negative human rights impact as a result of their business operations and indirectly through their business relationships.
The UN FFM’s call for a criminal investigation of KBZ and Max Myanmar have so far gone unheeded. This is unacceptable. KBZ, Max Myanmar and other donor corporations must be investigated to determine whether they should be prosecuted for aiding and abetting the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity under international law.
As part of their due diligence obligations, Justice For Myanmar calls on business partners of KBZ and Max Myanmar to:
1. Ensure that they are not involved in business with corporations that have or may have aided and abetted the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
2. Require KBZ and Max Myanmar to fully and publicly disclose all their business relationships with the Myanmar military, and all their donations to the Myanmar military and UEHRD. If KBZ and Max Myanmar fail to do so, cut all business ties with them.
3. Cut all ties with KBZ and Max Myanmar unless evidence establishes that they do not, currently or in the future, have any business relationships with the Myanmar military and that they have not made and do not, currently or in the future, make donations to the Myanmar military.
Today marks the 3rd year of genocide. Rohingya continue to be rendered stateless through Myanmar’s systematic and institutionalised discriminatory citizenship law and practices. More than 800,000 Rohingya are living in overly crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh and 130,000 are confined to detention camps in Rakhine State, guarded by security forces and denied basic human rights. Meanwhile, Max Myanmar, KBZ and other donors to genocide are continuing to profit and enjoy impunity alongside the Myanmar military.
The international partners of KBZ, Max Myanmar and the Myanmar military have a stark choice between upholding basic values of humanity or being complicit in covering up international crimes. Justice For Myanmar calls for these businesses to uphold their human rights due diligence obligations by ensuring that KBZ and Max Myanmar are held to account for their crimes of aiding and abetting the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The victims and survivors of the genocide must get justice. All perpetrators of the Rohingya genocide must be held to account.
For more on donations in support of the Rohingya genocide and recommendations, see the UN FFM report, The economic interests of the Myanmar military.
Correction (Sep. 3, 2020)
An earlier version incorrectly described AIA as domiciled in the UK. AIA is in fact domiciled in Hong Kong.