As Myanmar’s junta represses the democracy movement, attention is focusing on the companies that do business in Myanmar – something that often involves collaboration with corporations controlled by the military or its allies. In 2022, several major companies have pulled out following campaigning pressure – including some involved in Myanmar’s oil and gas sector, a crucial revenue source for the military. International attention is now focused on Norwegian telecoms company Telenor’s plans to divest, which would see a military ally take control of major phone network, enabling further repression and surveillance. For withdrawal to work as a sanction, companies must make sure they are not handing over assets to the military or its allies.

Myanmar’s democracy activists must sometimes feel the odds are stacked against them, as they fight an unequal battle to restore the freedoms so brazenly snatched away by the military in February 2021. While protests still take place and some groups have taken up armed resistance, many activists have been forced into hiding.

The military combines massive firepower with a ruthless disregard for human rights. To speak out is to risk death or imprisonment. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners reports that 1,603 people have been killed by the junta and 9,507 arrested, charged or sentenced since the coup.

In the face of such repression Myanmar’s activists and their allies around the world are increasingly deploying a different kind of tactic to hit the military where it hurts them most: their pockets.

Many of Myanmar’s biggest companies, including major state corporations, are directly controlled by the military, while others are opaquely linked to them by supportive business leaders. Foreign investment flooded into Myanmar when the military gradually stepped back from full power during the early 2010s, leading to competitive elections in 2015. But now investment no longer serves the purpose of building Myanmar’s democracy, campaigners are rightly asking foreign companies to cut their ties.

A wave of divestment

As the first anniversary of the coup approached, pressure started to tell. On 21 January, oil giants Chevron and Total pulled out of the Yadana gas field project, in which they worked with the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), a corporation intimately linked to the military. Total had been doing business in Myanmar since the 1990s.

Australian fossil fuel titan Woodside Petroleum was next to leave, a handful of days later. It announced it had ended a production deal with MOGE in November 2021 and was now handing back the rest of its extraction licences. The company said it could no longer work in Myanmar in a context of continuing violence and human rights abuses. It was also revealed that Shell had given up its stake in the same deal.

February saw another batch of companies withdraw. Japanese conglomerate Mitsubishi and Malaysian state oil corporation Petronas announced they were selling their shares in the Yetagun gas project. It wasn’t only fossil fuel projects: Japanese brewer Kirin reported that it was pulling out of its two joint ventures in Myanmar.

Pressure for more

Fossil fuel companies aren’t noted for their love of human rights. These withdrawals reflect less a sudden conversion than the strength of local and international civil society campaigning that seeks to make Myanmar a toxic market for corporate reputations. In the countries where multinationals are headquartered, sustained campaigning is exposing corporate complicity in human rights abuses and shaming companies into pulling out.

Myanmar’s democracy movement welcomes these moves. When Woodside withdrew, Justice for Myanmar – a covert group of activists – made the point that at a stroke the company had done far more for the cause of Myanmar democracy than the Australian government ever has.

But campaigners continue to call for more. Many companies and state enterprises remain in Myanmar. Several South Korean companies are still active. Thailand’s state-owned oil and gas company PTT remains involved in the Yadana project following the withdrawal of Chevron and Total – and has even offered to acquire their stake and take control of the project, evidently seeing opportunity where others saw an unacceptable compromise. Unlike their counterparts in countries with relatively open civic space, Thai civil society will find it hard to put pressure on the state corporation, since civic space in Thailand is severely repressed.

Activists aren’t just calling for companies to act. They also demand stronger economic sanctions, and crucially, sanctions that target Myanmar’s oil and gas sector, which provides around half the government’s foreign exchange but has largely been left untouched. New sanctions imposed in February by the European Union (EU), targeting 22 military and government officials and four companies – significantly including MOGE – won support from campaigners, among them Justice for Myanmar.

But there are still holdouts here too. While the Asian Development Fund and World Bank have suspended financing to Myanmar activities, the China-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has refused to make any such commitment.

Campaigners don’t call for sanctions lightly. They know these will bring harsh costs for Myanmar’s people. If sanctions work, economic activity will slow down as a result, threatening livelihoods and driving up the costs of essentials. But desperate times call for emergency measures. When the military are killing and locking people up, there are few alternatives available.

The junta can’t survive long-term economic sanctions. The people of Myanmar know they may suffer, but many welcome them as long as they hit the military.


Campaigners know by experience that sanctions work. The only reason the military gave way to democracy in the 2010s was because a sustained global campaign caused many companies to pull out, undermining the military’s economic base and making its continued grip on the country unviable. It can be done and it needs to happen again.

Voices from the frontline

Kyaw Win is founder and executive director of the Burma Human Rights Network, an organisation that works for human rights, minority rights and religious freedom in Myanmar.


Following the coup, we made clear to the international community that if we fail to take appropriate action, the junta would be emboldened to commit more crimes. Now, finally, targeted economic sanctions have been imposed and some companies, such as Chevron and Total, have decided to leave Myanmar.

Some argue that economic sanctions will push Myanmar closer to China, but those people forget that in 2007, following sanctions after the Saffron Revolution, there was an internal revolt that led to the transition to a civilian government. The junta can’t survive long-term economic sanctions. The people of Myanmar know they may suffer due to sanctions, but many have told me they welcome them as long as they hit the military.

We are also pushing for an arms embargo and to stop the sale of jet fuel to the junta, which they have used to bomb civilians. Another thing we request from the international community is humanitarian support.

I believe nothing lasts forever and this too will pass. The junta will have to leave at some point. While the situation is quite bad, a good sign is that many military personnel have changed sides and now support the shadow National Unity Government. But we need to continue our struggle with a clear vision of the future that is centred on human rights and democracy. And we need support from the international community so those struggling on the ground will one day see their dreams come true.


This is an edited extract of our conversation with Kyaw Win. Read the full interview here.

Smart divestment needed

Divestment alone isn’t enough. Who benefits from divestment matters.

Norwegian telecoms firm Telenor offers a current case in point. The company, majority owned by the government of Norway, is in the process of selling its Telenor Myanmar subsidiary. This could seem a cause for celebration: another important company is treating the junta as an international pariah and a government is living up to its human rights obligations.

But what happens after withdrawal is crucially important. Concern is mounting about Telenor Myanmar’s next owners. It’s been reported that the company is to be sold to Lebanese investment group M1 and Shwe Byain Phyu (SBP), a group founded and headed by a close friend of the military, Thein Win Zaw. Reports are that once M1 has completed the takeover, SBP will buy 80 per cent of the shares. Telenor Myanmar’s profits will directly enable continuing military repression.

The fact that this is a telecoms company is particularly troubling. The junta isn’t just trying to crush opposition by force – it’s also trying to win a communications war. It has imposed tight restrictions on the media and targeted journalists. In the hands of the authoritarian regime, a mobile phone network would become a powerful tool of control.

Telenor Myanmar has already faced pressure from the junta to enable surveillance of its 18 million customers and block content critical of the military. Once a military-linked company has direct control, there will be no resistance to such demands. Call and internet logs, SIM card registration data and location data could all be handed over, giving the junta a spectacular new weapon in its war on rights, enabling it to go after activists and keep a large section of the public under constant surveillance.

Given its majority stake, Norway’s centre-left government seems set to profit from a sale that will worsen human rights violations. The secrecy in which the deal is shrouded, with crucial details revealed only by investigative reporting, suggests a degree of embarrassment and an attempt to distance Telenor from the ultimate beneficiaries of the sale. But the Norwegian government and Telenor must be publicly called to account. The basis on which Telenor made its decision, and the extent to which it took human rights concerns into account, need to be opened up to public scrutiny, and the company must be held accountable.

Civil society is campaigning against the clock. Justice for Myanmar is urging the government to block the sale. The Norwegian Forum for Development and Environment, a network of over 50 civil society organisations (CSOs), has called on the country’s police force and attorney general to investigate the sale, on the grounds of possible violation of chapter 16 of Norway’s Penal Code, which codifies the offences of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

A Telenor customer in Myanmar has filed a complaint with Norway’s Data Protection Authority, asking it to investigate whether the sale would infringe rights under the country’s data protection law. The complainant is an activist living in hiding who fears that if the military gets hold of phone data, their family and friends could be targeted.

They are working with the Netherlands-based Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), which investigates multinational companies and works to hold them to account. The complaint contends that the sale would be in breach of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), to which Norway as a member of the EU’s single market adheres.

SOMO has also made a complaint over the sale to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, on behalf of 474 Myanmar CSOs, and has appealed directly to Norway’s prime minister. As a result of the campaigning, Telenor’s key investors are asking the company to undertake proper human rights due diligence and take every step to protect data.

Companies need to take responsibility

The lesson is clear: companies don’t just need to divest; they must divest responsibly and make sure they don’t hand their businesses over to the military or allies who help finance and enable violent repression. It would be better for Telenor simply to close down its Myanmar operations than hand over control to a key junta ally.

Companies that have profited handsomely from their business in Myanmar, enabled by friendly relations with the military, should expect to face growing pressure to do the right thing – and to be prepared to walk away at a loss if required rather than hand over to the military. As more and more companies pull out, those that remain will rightly face heightened scrutiny. Myanmar’s activists will continue to insist that there is no room for business as usual when basic human rights and freedoms are under assault.


  • Telenor should immediately halt the sale of its Myanmar subsidiary and work with civil society to develop an alternative plan for withdrawal from Myanmar.
  • International companies still active in Myanmar should commit to a plan and timetable for responsible divestment, ensuring they do not hand over assets to companies controlled by the military and military allies.
  • States should impose further coordinated sanctions that target companies controlled by military and military allies, including in the oil and gas sector.

Cover photo by Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images