Should hotel brands shed JVs in Myanmar?

CHIANG RAI, 1 March 2021: We shouldn’t get a bad taste from drinking beer, but it’s a likely outcome after discovering Myanmar’s famous beer brands top-up the ill-gotten coffers of a military junta.

I recall downing an ice-cold Myanmar beer after a long day of touring in Shan State or following the long sessions of the ASEAN Tourism Forum in the political capital of Nay Pyi Taw. It never occurred to any attending travel media that the profits from brewing beer would end in a corporation owned by the military hierarchy.

But the cat is out of the bag following the latest military coup in early February. Social media channels point the finger at the avarice and hypocrisy of coup leaders and foreign investors who conveniently leave their conscience at home to joint venture with the junta.

It started with Japan’s conglomerate Kirin Beer, the joint partner in the Myanmar and Mandalay brewery ventures, which left the Kirin CEO no other option but to concede they would now “seek to end the Myanmar ventures within a year.” That is clearly a milestone.

According to Nikkei Asia, on 18 February, Kirin Holdings’ president & CEO Yoshinori Isozaki defended the decision to invest in Myanmar, saying its military-linked partner “should have followed the rules.”

But kudos to him for recognising a mistake and promising to correct it in a timely fashion with a public statement.

“I want to end our relationship with the [Myanmar] military… “I want to settle it by spring, and definitely within a year.”

Anyone who has travelled to Myanmar and enjoyed its wonderful hospitality would support a spring timeframe that swept the military back to its barracks and returned power to the legitimately elected government. The alternatives are an economic disaster as millions of travellers will go elsewhere when Myanmar needs them the most during the long post-Covid-19 recovery period. It’s one coup too many, one too many assaults on human rights.

It will take a miracle to rescue Myanmar financially after the coup. The military prospers whatever the outcome. It has a treasure chest of more than USD11 billion stashed away despite the Biden administration freezing USD1 billion in US banks. The junta’s financial tentacles spread far and wide, controlling essential industries, even the lucrative ruby trade.  Facebook and Twitter closed the military’s accounts, but as the social “covert” website, Justice for Myanmar points out in its weekly exposes, there remain corporations worldwide that are ducking their heads below the parapet, hoping their vast financial interests in joint ventures with military leaders will go unnoticed.

Travel and hospitality companies are on notice too from Justice for Myanmar. Last week it zoomed in on at least one international hotel group headquartered in Japan and a developer of retail and hotels funded from Singapore. Both are now on the backfoot, attempting to distance themselves from social media fallout.

Justice for Myanmar points out that the international joint venture partners are complicit in deals that pass on vast sums of cash to the military junta in land leases payments for real estate developments, many of them involving international hotel brands.  As intransigent coup leaders dig their heels in for the long haul, social media’s power to deliver accurate information on the money trail could inflict immense damage on tourism and hospitality companies linked to the military. Many of the international partners are sustainable development champions who sign off on UN global goals to build a better future. Sustainable tourism is top-of-mind, at least when they conduct webinars.

Do we cherry-pick the SDGs

SDGs or Global Goals are fashionable themes when creating tourism experiences. Sustainability themed tourism stories are good for business. They focus on reversing climate change, generating tourism revenue through communities and alleviating poverty. They are the common SDGs that corporations embrace. But are they cherry-picking? Could they be ignoring the sustainable development goal that calls for human rights and justice?

There are 17 SGDs or “Global Goals adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015 as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030.

SDGs we favour in travel

The travel and hospitality industries love SDG3 that calls for good health and wellbeing and they are partial to sustainable cities and communities (SDG11). The braver might embrace the challenges of Climate Action (13) or champion gender equality (5), clean water distribution (6) and clean energy endeavours (7). They may even follow the trial to responsible consumption and production in their internal operations (12). But they drop the ball on human rights especially military coups that scrap perfectly legitimate elections.

Tourism’s success is intrinsically bound to people and their perceived wellbeing. The UN SDG16 is the goal that underscores human rights and just society as important sustainability goals alongside climate action and poverty alleviation. Yet, they rarely gain a mention when tourism and hospitality industries talk about sustainability.

Major tourism and hospitality corporations worldwide that subscribe to the UN’s 17 SDGs, need to evaluate their ventures in countries that are clearly delinquent in human rights. In the end, they will have to make a decision on whether to stay or leave on the principle that people and their human rights must come first.

 We cannot ignore events like the coup in Myanmar, sweep the joint ventures with the junta under the carpet while we talk of our role as champions of sustainability.  We all do it and there is no clear evidence that the travel media would walk away from commercial benefits if the junta dangles the dollars under our noses.

Or, as the UNDP said in its preamble on SDGs: “We cannot hope for sustainable development without peace, stability, human rights and effective governance, based on the rule of law.”