How a genocide ruling would affect Myanmar business

Next week, on January 23, the International Court of Justice will announce its ruling on whether or not Myanmar is guilty of genocide.

The charges were leveled by the Gambia with a request for “provisional measures” to halt and rectify alleged human rights abuses against the Rohingya Muslims settled along the western border. The case is a climax of a two-year drama that led to a United Nations call for a boycott on the vast array of military-linked businesses. When the Gambia brought Myanmar before the ICJ, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself travelled to the Hague to defend the country.

For her critics, the state counsellor’s decision to actively defend the army merely cemented her fall from grace as a human rights icon. But her motivations were not merely political; they were also economic. Until now, the allegations have been spearheaded by global media and human rights groups, especially the United Nation’s Independent Fact-Finding Mission for Myanmar. These are not legitimate legal bodies, and their claims are still more or less subjective. This means companies like Kirin, which has faced backlash for its stake in the military-owned Myanmar Brewery, have an element of plausible deniability.

But an unfavorable verdict from the ICJ would change things. Note that during her defense, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi did not deny that human rights abuses occurred. She openly admitted to some mass executions, village burnings and other misdeeds by the military. She merely argued that they did not amount to “genocide,” and therefore should be handled internally by Myanmar’s own legal system. Admitting to those crimes will be a political black eye for Myanmar, and may lead some investors to follow the example of Western Union, which recently cut ties to a military bank. But the spotlight would eventually fade, and it would eventually be back to business as usual.

An official genocide ruling from the ICJ, however, would be a much longer-lasting brand, and much more difficult for investors to ignore.

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