Long before beer giant Kirin announced plans to end its partnership with the Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) the people of Myanmar had been boycotting Myanmar Beer for its relation to the Military regime. People are not buying the product and denounce any business that sells it. This is making many restaurants, pubs, and bars to discontinue selling the product.
Kirin’s relationship with the Myanmar Military, and its human rights violations
Myanmar Beer is produced by Myanmar Brewery. Japan-based alcohol industry giant Kirin owns 51% of Myanmar Brewery in a joint venture with Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), which owns 49% of the shares. MEHL, also known as Myanmar Economic Holdings Public Co (MEHPC), is a military-owned conglomerate and serves as a welfare fund for the military junta in Myanmar.
The Myanmar Military took power in the country in 1988. The military-based State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) suspended the existing constitution (1974 constitution). Myanmar was without a constitution and under military rule till 2008. The military government then proposed a constitution in 2008. A constitutional referendum was held to adopt the new constitution. There were many criticisms of the new constitution, including that it still kept the military in power. There were also allegations of corruption in the referendum process. However, this new constitution was adopted in May 2008.
When Kirin invested in Myanmar in 2017 it appeared to be a signal of economic liberalization and democratic improvements to the country and a relaxing of power by the Myanmar military. Nevertheless, the hopes never materialized. The military regime committed egregious human rights violations against the people of their own country, and specifically against the Rohingya minority who are still not recognized as citizens in Myanmar.
Eventually, in February 2021 the Myanmar military took over control of the country again through a coup.
Big Alcohol has bloods on its hand due to its support of the military regime.
- An Amnesty International investigation revealed the links between MEHL and Myanmar military units charged with egregious human rights abuses.
- Kirin’s subsidiary in Myanmar made three donations to the Burmese military during the army’s offensive in 2017 that forced over 700,000 Rohingya civilians to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. United Nations investigators concluded that this operation included mass killings and gang rapes and was executed with “genocidal intent”.
Through its joint ventures, Kirin was legitimizing and funding the Myanmar military as it faced charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice.
After the military coup in February 2021, Kirin has announced that it will end its joint ventures with MEHL. These are Myanmar Brewery and Mandalay Brewery. In March 2022 Kirin finally ended its Myanmar operations.
People of Myanmar boycott Myanmar Beer
That beer giant Kirin ended its partnership with MEHL has not made any difference for people and communities in Myanmar who were anyway boycotting Myanmar Beer over its affiliation with the military.
Myanmar Beer used to dominate bars and supermarket shelves till February last year when the Military ousted the government.
The military’s recent suppression of dissent has taken about 1700 lives according to a local monitoring group, leading to people boycotting Myanmar Beer and other brands linked with the military as one form of expressing their dissent.
We avoid it. If there is only Myanmar Beer in the restaurant, then we don’t drink beer,” said Kyaw Gyi, a Myanmar citizen and sailor by profession, as per Bangkok Post.
We know other beer brands are paying tax to the military, but we don’t want all of our money going to them.Kyaw Gyi
Businesses have also been boycotting the brand due to customer retaliation. For example, one restaurant in downtown Rangoon has not only stopped selling Myanmar beer since April of last year, but they have also removed all the chairs, tables, and umbrellas that bore the red, white, and gold logo of the brand.
If people see the Myanmar Beer logo with our restaurant name, they won’t come,” said the restaurant manager, as per Bangkok Post.A restaurant manager in Rangoon, Myanmar
The military junta’s oppression has sparked widespread anger and thus establishments still serving the beer linked with the regime have faced more serious consequences.
For example, France 24 reports that in early March, bombs were set off outside two Yangon bars and a restaurant in second city Mandalay that were still selling the beer. Another example is that transports of the beer in the rural central plains have been targeted by local anti-coup groups and their cargoes trashed, according to local media reports.
The boycott of Myanmar Beer has hit Myanmar Brewery and its owners Kirin and MEHL where it hurts them the most: profit margins.
In 2018, Myanmar Brewery used to have a market share of 80% according to Kirin. In 2021, after COVID-19 and military coup-related disruptions, Myanmar Brewery recorded a year-end operating profit of 6.6 billion yen ($54 million). This is a major loss and more than a halving of the profit compared with the 13.8 billion yen the previous year.
The only places where Myanmar Beer is available widely are found in the military-built capital Nay Pyi Taw, rural areas that experienced less coup-related violence, and the Rakhine state where there is a truce between the military and Arakan Army (AA) rebels. Not so coincidentally, Rakhine is also the state where Rohingya Muslims live and are persecuted.
Not only Kirin, other beer giants are also affiliated with authoritarian regimes
People in Myanmar are boycotting Myanmar Beer. This has created a lucrative opportunity for other beer giants, including Heineken and Carlsberg.
In February, after months of trying to dissolve its partnership with the military-backed firm, and as pressure from human rights groups escalated, the Japanese alcohol giant announced it would leave Myanmar. The boycott and its upcoming exit is leaving Kirin rivals Heineken, Carlsberg and Thailand’s Chang competing for the market. They have all picked up market share from Myanmar Beer, particularly in the cities, according to Yangon-based market observer, as per France 24 reporting.
But Kirin is not the only company affiliated with an oppressive regime and their gross human rights abuses. Both Heineken and Carlsberg have similarly appalling track records.
Carlsberg and Heineken both played the waiting game in Russia while Putin invaded Ukraine. The two companies only exited Russia after about a month into the invasion and long after many other multinationals exited Russia. Even though the companies exited there still remain questions about what will happen during the transition period.
Heineken has previously continued business as usual in authoritarian regimes, as was exposed in the book “Heineken in Africa” by investigative journalist Olivier van Beemen, its presence and practices contributing, indirectly, to war crimes or other human rights violations, for example in Rwanda, Burundi or in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
For more information
Justice for Myanmar: More information on the profits Kirin makes for the Burmese military
The Independent United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar: Report on the role of international companies doing business with the military and their complicity in international crimes
Burma Campaign UK ‘Dirty List’ – Kirin entry