Owners set to sell their ‘ethical’ US brewery to beer giant accused of funding Rohingya genocide

Saw Greh Moo was six years old when his family fled fighting in Karen state. Myanmar military soldiers burned his village, and his family hid in fear of their lives in the jungle near the Thai border for several years.

“They would shoot and kill anyone they saw in the border area,” he said.

He eventually made it to a refugee camp in Thailand – where his father killed himself – and then to the US after winning a scholarship to study in Canada.

He now lives in North Carolina with his wife, who is also from Karen.

“We are lucky,” he said. “We made it to America.”

His town of New Bern is home to some 1,000 Karen people, many of them refugees who are grateful to be out of reach of a military accused of horrific crimes.

But last week they heard news that jolted them: a popular local brewery is about to be bought out by a company accused of funding the Myanmar military’s abuses against ethnic minorities. “We are very concerned,” he told Myanmar Now.

‘Force for good’

The New Belgium Brewery insists it is not like other companies. Its owners, who are also its employees, are devoted to fighting social inequity and climate change, proving business can “be a force for good,” its website says.

Their CEO Kim Jordan was honoured among 30 “World-Changing Women in Conscious Business” last year. Employees even get free bicycles.

But those ethical credentials have not stopped them planning to sell their firm, which has breweries in Colorado and North Carolina, to a beer giant accused of funding genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar.

United Nations experts in August named and shamed Japan’s Kirin for enriching the country’s military, which used the money to help fund a campaign of mass murder, rape and arson in Rakhine state in 2017, they said.

For Saw Greh Moo and others who have suffered at the hands of the Myanmar military, the pattern of violence is all too familiar. He and others are calling on New Belgium’s roughly 700 shareholder staff to halt the sale.

The employees are now voting on whether to sell their firm to Lion Little World Beverages, a subsidiary of Kirin. Voting is expected to close in the coming weeks.

Kirin’s partner, Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), is an opaque military-owned conglomerate run by top generals.

“If New Belgium employees vote to be part of Kirin, they will have as a business partner a military which rapes children and throws babies into burning homes,” said Mark Farmaner, director of the Burma Campaign UK pressure group.

Both the military and the government have forcefully rejected claims their soldiers committed widespread abuses against civilians. They argue that the campaign was a legitimate counterinsurgency operation.

Together with MEHL, Kirin produces about 80 percent of all beer sold in Myanmar.

Kirin’s partner, Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), is an opaque military-owned conglomerate run by top generals.(Photo: Danny Fenster)

The August report by a UN fact-finding mission urged all businesses to completely sever financial ties with Myanmar’s military, which uses its vast business network to fund its activities without civilian oversight.

Since the NLD government took power, the military’s official budget has been gradually reduced, leading it to increasingly depend on this network, it said.

Partnering with military-run firms helps top generals fund operations that amount to “the gravest crimes under international law,” the report said.

Khin Ohmar, a human rights activist who led student protests against Myanmar’s military dictatorship in the late 1980s, urged New Belgium to rethink the sale.

“In Myanmar, Kirin is complicit in genocide,” she told Myanmar Now.

“I want to appeal to New Belgium management and employees to stand for justice and human rights and refuse to join Kirin unless Kirin divests from the Myanmar military,” she added.

Khin Ohmar asked Jordan, the CEO, if she could fly to Colorado to give company leadership and staff a presentation on Kirin’s human rights record in Myanmar ahead of the vote, and said she would be happy to cover her own travel costs. Jordan declined the offer.

New Belgium is one of the world’s largest independent breweries and counts Fat Tire Ale and Voodoo Ranger IPA among its best known brands.

Its employees will receive a $100,000 bonus in their pension fund after the sale goes through, with some receiving even more, Jordan said in an open letter.

Kirin said it is committed to “identifying, preventing and mitigating” any damage its business does to human rights in Myanmar.

“We are aware especially of the UN fact-finding mission report released in August and take this matter very seriously,” Kirin spokesperson Toshiaki Hyoudou told Myanmar Now.

New Belgium says it has done its due diligence and stands by its would-be partner. “At Kirin, respect for human rights is fundamental to all of their business activities,” said Leah Pilcer, director of communications for New Belgium.

“There is no way to responsibly do business with the military conglomerates” in Myanmar, countered Paul Donowitz from Global Witness, an advocacy group.

Community brewery

New Belgium touts its close relationship with the communities where it does business as among its most important achievements. But there is no sign yet of them listening to the concerns of Myanmar refugees who call North Carolina home.

“We don’t want any entities – especially based in our state – getting involved with the Burmese military,” said Saw Greh Moo.

Joshua Martin, a resident from Asheville, the town where the North Carolina brewery is based, said he attended a community meeting about the sale where the company said two employees had raised concerns about Kirin’s human rights record.

Martin said the company representative failed to address the fact Kirin has a business partnership with the military.

Instead, they focused on a donation that Kirin made to the military at the height of the 2017 campaign against the Rohingya.

“But they did not seem to address the issue of the partnership with… the military,” he added.

Styrling Tangusso, another Asheville resident, is also troubled over the sale, especially since it comes as Myanmar prepares to defend against a charge of genocide at the International Court of Justice next week.

“I find it unsettling,” he said. “You read the local papers here and the national papers and it’s all positive. There’s no mention of Myanmar.”

Tangusso said he stopped by the brewery for a drink recently and spoke with a bartender who seemed indifferent about the issue.

“It was one last one, I guess. The last Fat Tire I can drink with a clear conscience,” he said.

Donations and boycotts

Several pressure groups, including the International Campaign for the Rohingya, have urged consumers to boycott Kirin.

“New Belgium could avoid being included in this boycott by making a condition of the acquisition that Kirin end its partnership with Burma’s military,” said Simon Billenness, the group’s executive director.

Kirin bought its majority stake in the military-owned brewery in 2015 for $560 million.

As well as calling on Kirin to end its joint venture with the military, the UN experts named it among dozens of firms it said should be criminally investigated for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity with donations to the military during the 2017 violence.

Kirin made three donations via its joint venture, Myanmar Brewery. The first was a cash gift of $6,000 at a ceremony presided over by the military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing on 1 September 2017.

At the televised ceremony, held a week after soldiers began storming villages in Rakhine, Min Aung Hlaing praised the donors for their “nationalistic fervour”.

Amnesty International, prompted by the UN report, called on the Japanese government to investigate Kirin for criminal misconduct.

“The donations were made at a time when global media were awash with reports of the Myanmar security forces committing atrocities against Rohingya women, men and children, who were already fleeing by their tens of thousands into neighbouring Bangladesh,” the letter read.

Min Aung Hlaing is also the chairman of the MEHL Patron Group. Its vice chairman is deputy commander-in-chief Soe Win. The UN has also recommended both be prosecuted for genocide and both are barred from entering the US for their role in the 2017 violence.

Responding to Amnesty International, Kirin said its donations were intended for humanitarian relief efforts in Rakhine state but admitted they did not know where the money had ended up.

The company then launched new human rights and charitable giving policies and conducted a human rights impact assessment, it said.

But many human rights activists are unhappy with Kirin’s response, which never addressed the fact the beer giant has a joint venture with MEHL.

“The donations are tiny compared to the revenue that flows from their business operations,” Khin Ohmar said. “So changing their donation policy is not meaningful since the military and senior generals continue to receive substantial funds from their profit split with Kirin.”

(Editing by Joshua Carroll)

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