Human rights groups have urged Japanese brewing giant Kirin, the multinational behind beer brands XXXX, Tooheys, Kirin, and Little Creatures, to cut ties with its Myanmar business operations, alleging its continued part-ownership of two military-linked breweries there makes it effectively complicit in war crimes committed by the military in Myanmar.
The company owns just over half of of both Myanmar Brewery and Mandalay Brewery in partnership with Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (MEHL), a company controlled by the country’s military that a UN investigation has found is overseen by the commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
On Monday Min Aung Hlaing led a military coup that seized control of the government in Myanmar.
The human rights group Justice for Myanmar claimed that Kirin had dragged its heels in dealing with the issue and accused the company of acting in bad faith.
“The revenue from Kirin’s joint ventures finance the Myanmar military’s ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity. Kirin stands complicit in those crimes,” said a spokesperson, Yadanar Maung.
“Kirin has empowered and legitimised the military through their breweries and their continued business in Myanmar is untenable.”
Early last year, in response to concerns raised by human rights groups, Kirin released a statement saying: “it is wholly unacceptable for any proceeds from our Myanmar joint-ventures to be used for military purposes, which is the fundamental condition of the joint-venture agreement” and said it was reviewing its operations in Myanmar.
In June the company hired the accounting firm Deloitte “to determine the destination of proceeds from the joint-venture businesses Myanmar Brewery Limited and Mandalay Brewery Limited as a matter of urgency”.
“In parallel, Kirin is exploring alternative structural options for the ownership of the Myanmar joint-ventures as part of a review of the business relationship with MEHL,” it said.
In November, as the Deloitte investigation continued amid the coronavirus pandemic, Kirin suspended the payments of dividends from the breweries to itself and MEHL.
The move followed a report by Amnesty International that directly linked the brewers with payments to military units accused of war crimes.
But last month Kirin said the accounting firm had not been able to figure out where dividends paid to MEHL ultimately ended up “as a result of Deloitte being unable to access sufficient information required to make a definitive determination”.
“Kirin has not been transparent and it no longer appears to be a good faith review,” Yadanar Maung said.
“Kirin must stop dragging their feet and immediately cut ties with the Myanmar military. We also call on them to make Deloitte’s review public and be fully transparent about their divestment from the Myanmar military.”
Walking away from the breweries would be difficult for Kirin, as it would involve handing valuable assets to the military figures it has already been attacked for being in business with.
Guardian Australia put all of Justice for Myanmar’s allegations to Kirin.
A company spokeswoman did not respond to them in detail.
“As Kirin is urgently assessing the current situation in Myanmar, the company will not be able to comment further on this matter at this stage,” she said.
“Kirin’s immediate priority remains ensuring the safety and wellbeing of its employees. We will share an update on Kirin’s position in the near future.
“Our priority at this time is to ensure the safety of our employees and smooth continuation of operations, and we continue to monitor the situation closely.”
Min Aung Hlaing, 64, has appointed himself Myanmar’s leader for at least the next year.
He has served in Myanmar’s military since the 1970s and became commander-in-chief in 2011. The US and the UK have both imposed sanctions on him over his command over the military, which committed genocide against the ethnic minority Rohingya in 2017.
More than 750,000 Rohingya were forced to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh during the 2017 pogroms on Rohingya villages in Rhakine state. UN investigators said the Myanmar military’s “clearance operations” included mass killings, including of children, gang-rapes, widespread arson as part of a scorched earth policy, and systemic torture, executed with “genocidal intent”.
Min Aung Hlang will reach mandatory retirement age in July, leading to speculation the coup was a tactic by which he could stay in power. He and his family have reportedly amassed considerable wealth.
Business partnerships with multinationals provides not only much-needed foreign currency for the isolated Myanmar military – which is subject to global arms embargoes – but also, crucially, is a source of international legitimacy.
Kirin was named in a UN fact-finding mission report in 2018 as having directly donated money to the Myanmar military.
The donations came at a time the military sought to raise money it then used for what it described as “clearance operations” against the Rohingya. Kirin has acknowledged making three donations but said they were given strictly on the understanding they were for humanitarian purposes only.
In addition to the direct donations, totalling about US$12,000, the report alleged that MEHL’s revenue was funnelled to the military, further enabling the armed forces’ persecution of the Rohingya.
The UN report said “any engagement in any form” with the Myanmar military was “indefensible”.
In reaction to the report’s claims that the money may have been used by the military Kirin said they took such allegations very seriously and planned to introduce improvements in the donation process, immediately halting all new corporate donations in Myanmar.
After investigation, Kirin said that a significant proportion of the donations were given to civilians for humanitarian purposes.
In a statement made earlier in January Kirin said “The Kirin Group Human Rights Policy underpins our commitment to protect human rights within our business. Kirin takes its responsibilities in Myanmar seriously and will continue to take the necessary action to ensure its business activities in the country adhere to the highest standards. A further update on our plans will be provided by the end of April 2021.”
Kirin is one of the largest brewers and beverage firms in the world.
Wholly owned by the Kirin beverages empire, the Australasian brewer Lion brews beers including XXXX, Tooheys, James Boag’s, James Squire’s and Little Creatures. Lion also owns Speight’s and Steinlager in New Zealand, and New Belgium and Magnolia in the US.