News

A briefing about the current situation in Myanmar for our clients, partners, and friends

25.02.2021 / Briefing #4

This week included the largest day of protest yet in Myanmar, on which an estimated million or more people across the country took to the streets. It was a testament to the unity of the country’s people. However, it was also a week that recorded the first deaths of protestors.

In previous weeks, numerous brands rolled out campaigns to show support for the community, but this week our monitoring shows that brands stayed mostly quiet, perhaps waiting to see how the massive protests unfolded.

Nonetheless, our expectation is that soon more brands and businesses will find ways to support the community by addressing major needs such as food security, youth education, health and wellness, and independent journalism. Second-order effects of the military coup are being felt across the country, and there is a role for the business community to play in addressing the needs they create.

So if your business or brand is actively engaging and serving the community, we would love to know about it and help you spread the word. You can email us at yangon@vero-asean.com.

As we have done for the past three weeks, we at Vero have gathered developments and recommendations for how brands should respond. We will continue to provide updates at least weekly, or more often if the situation demands.

Brands call for reconciliation

The Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business organized a collective statement from the business community expressing their desire for a swift resolution based on “reconciliation in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar.” This statement – which is open for others to join – has already been signed by more than 80 Myanmar brands and multinational companies from diverse sectors.

The statement makes it clear that the interests of the business community are contrary to the recent actions by the military:

“As investors, we inhabit a ‘shared space’ with the people of Myanmar, including civil society organisations, in which we all benefit from respect for human rights, democracy and fundamental freedoms – including freedom of expression and association – and the rule of law. The rule of law, respect for human rights, and the unrestricted flow of information all contribute to a stable business environment.”

Vero is among the companies that signed onto the collective statement.

News & media

There are online reports that most of the staff of The Myanmar Times, the country’s English-language newspaper, have left their jobs in protest against demands by the editor-in-chief to conform to the military’s instructions in their reporting. More than a dozen journalists quit, including several of the newsroom’s leading editors, and the newspaper has announced a shutdown effective for at least three months.

Reportedly, the Tatmadaw asked The Myanmar Times to refer to them as the State Administration Council (SAC) instead of “military junta” or “military regime” and use the term “power transfer” instead of “coup”.

Despite the pressure, many media publications and journalists continue to deliver factual news to the public. Mizzima News published an open letter from the editor-in-chief in which he declared that, as the current president has not transferred power, the term “military coup” must be used to refer to the “illegitimate government”.

Most of the Myanmar Press Council (26 of 29 members) have also left their positions in defiance of the military junta trying to control and restrict their reporting. The Council was created by President U Win Myint, who is still under arrest, with the goal of acting as a liaison between government bodies, organizations, and the press. Its responsibilities include protecting freedom of speech and expression.

Social media punishment

In the past few days, netizens have mobilized to expose people who have stayed silent, supporters of the military, and anyone who has benefitted from ties to the military. In these “social media punishments,” people’s profiles, businesses, posts, and past actions are exposed online with encouragement to share and boycott them.

Some of those who have been punished have only indirect connections but did not speak out in favor of the protest movement.

Brand Happenings

One situation last week exemplifies the risks of internal company documents becoming public.

An internal document from a popular fast-food franchise was leaked onto social media which listed guidelines for staff regarding protestors. The document clearly stated that all staff must be wary of protestors, must call police immediately if protestors come into the store, and should take photos and videos as evidence if protestors destroy property.

The document quickly became viral, and netizens took to social media to condemn and announce a boycott of the company. Soon after the document was posted, the brand released a statement of apology, but netizens say their trust is not so easily regained.

Meanwhile, another brand has taken to providing discounts to protestors. Loi Sam Sip, a Thai-fusion restaurant in Yangon, announced that the company is supporting protestors and CDM participants by offering 20 percent off the price of meals.

VERO’S RECOMMENDATIONS

While there have been many new developments in the situation in the past week, the atmosphere continues to be extremely volatile. Therefore, our recommendations to brands remain the same:

  • Plan for disinformation attacks: Brands should program social listening tools and media monitoring tools to pick up disinformation regarding potential risk area, such as ties to the military, statements by executives or rumors related to corporate policy. The sooner brands can identify a disinformation attack, the sooner it can be corrected and halted
  • Prepare positive Contributions: Brand leaders should look into how they can make a positive contribution to Myanmar’s future. There are myriad ways to ensure people’s basic needs are being met. There are also opportunities for brands and companies to contribute in areas such as healthcare, education, independent journalism, and support for small businesses. Rather than staying on the sidelines, consider taking a service-minded approach and seeking ways to be useful to the public.  
  • Support local independent media: Another way for brands to help is to support independent local media by advertising with them. 
  • Advise brand ambassadors and influencers: Brands in partnerships with influencers should monitor sentiments around them and provide them with expertise on crafting their social media statements to avoid backlash.   
  • Support your employees: Consider how to position yourself with regards to your employees demonstrating during business hours. There is a significant chance that many of your employees will want to participate in the massive demonstrations taking part in Myanmar, and they will expect you to support them. Failure to outline clearly how you will do so may lead to backlash.  
      • Means of support include providing paid time off, information on the best ways to protect oneself while protesting, and safety equipment for those who plan to protest goggles, umbrellas, raincoats, and gloves, as well as face masks and sanitizers for virus protection.  
      • Share internal guidelines on where your brand stands and whether and how much your employees may leverage that stance in their political actions, both in person and online.  

17.02.2021 / Briefing #3

Tensions remain high in Myanmar this week.  Protests continue on the streets and through the civil disobedience movement, despite potential for violence, legal threats, massive business disruption, and frequent internet shutdowns. 

To help support our clients, the business community, and the communications industry in Myanmar, we at Vero have gathered developments of the last week, as well as our updated recommendations for how brands should respond. We will continue to provide updates at least weekly, or more often if the situation demands.

Brands and Taxation

Netizens report strong public support for withholding taxes as a means of protest. This includes employees urging employers not to deduct income tax and social security payments from their payroll, as well as consumers pressuring brands to stop paying commercial tax (aka CT, or national sales tax).

Netizens are urging a variety of companies to stop paying CT. Documented cases of this include an international fast-food franchise, an online transport platform, and a food delivery platform.

Netizens report that a fast-food chain is receiving negative backlash after one of their staff asked customers to pay CT. The customer posted about the incident on Facebook, and people are now urging the public to boycott the brand. One of the customers also sent a message about their unwillingness to pay tax, and the brand replied that they have already instructed all their branches in Myanmar to sell without including national sales tax.

Brands Gain Support

The group of brands that have gained favor among protestors for their political stances grew this week. Netizens are carefully monitoring how brands react to the coup and new military directives. From banking to retail to tech to food, many brands are responding constructively, and netizens are sure to call out those that are not making their positions clear.

In the telecom sector, netizens express support for Telenor and encourage the purchase of Telenor SIM cards because the company has been transparent and forthright about sharing directives from the Military government.

Netizens are encouraging people to keep their money at CB Bank or AYA Banks. Neither bank has released a statement on the current situation or the protests, but there is widespread online content about both banks encouraging their employees to join the Civil Disobedience Movement. 

Netizens are encouraging people to shop more at retail chain City Mart since they stopped selling brands linked to the military.

Both Grab and Food Panda announced free delivery for all orders to customers, discounts, vouchers, and coupons as well as free onboarding services, and a zero percent commission fee for the first month to all new vendors. For Grab Food bikers, the company said they will top up an additional 50% in earnings for every completed delivery. Grab also said the company remains committed to supporting Myanmar in creating income opportunities for partners and ensuring their platform provides safe, convenient, and reliable services. Meanwhile, Netizens are encouraging both brands to cease payments of the commercial tax.

Brands taking this approach may conclude that in the short term, while emotions are running high, it would be easier to absorb potential commercial tax liability themselves and deal with the consequences at a later date, rather than provoke customer anger and put their employees at risk.

Netizens and Nations

Netizens are also criticizing other countries for the tone of their messaging.  China and many Chinese brands are facing negative sentiment and threats of boycott based on what Myanmar netizens view as moves by China to support the Tatmadaw.

There is also a smaller wave of negative online sentiment towards Singapore, because, according to Myanmar netizens, Singapore did not strongly condemn the military coup during a special session of the UN Council on Human Rights. A photo leaked online purports to show a scorecard indicating weak anti-coup sentiment from Singapore. There is also a common belief among netizens that tech companies from Singapore are supplying equipment to the Tatmadaw. As a result, Netizens are calling for a boycott of Singaporean brands.

While brands from some countries may have limitations on how much support they can provide directly to Myanmar‘s protest movement, they can still try to make a positive difference by collaborating with Myanmar organizations that may need help, such as those dedicated to healthcare, youth education, and food assistance.

When COVID-19 first struck Southeast Asia, some Chinese brands excelled at diplomacy via mask and hand sanitizer distribution. Theirs is a lesson worth remembering in Myanmar today.

Misinformation and Disinformation

At least one brand we are aware of was falsely linked to the military. Their targeting could have been deliberate or a mistake, but it’s crucial that brands stay aware and monitor for misinformation and disinformation – and that they are ready to set the record straight. One good way to prevent disinformation is for brands and companies to use their communication capabilities to share information on a regular basis, thereby growing their audience’s trust. When brands stay silent for weeks or months, then try to counteract misinformation or disinformation in a crisis, the response is muted and it is difficult to correct the narrative.  

Influencers and Protest

Some influencers who took an anti-coup/pro-democracy stance early are now finding stronger support from consumers.

  • Eindra Kyaw Zin inspires support for any brand she works with, which are largely in the health, skincare, and cosmetics industries.
  • There is broad support for celebrities Paing Phyo Thu and Na Gyi, both of whom have actively participated in protests. Na G is a film director and Paing Phyo Thu is an academy award-winning actress. They also encourage people to participate in CDM, and they donate to organizations that help staff who are doing CDM.
  • In the beauty category, influencers including May Oo Maung, May Oo, Kyaw Ye Tun, Nyi Nyi Maung, Khin San Win are gaining support for sharing their views in support of the protest movement.
  • Netizens are supporting the SG ice cream sandwich business of Paing Takhon, a well-known actor who has become a top supporter of the anti-coup movement and urges his international fans to support democracy in Myanmar. He is also currently the brand ambassador of OPPO, Sunkist Myanmar, and MG Myanmar.

Other influencers have been criticized on social media and lost followers for their slow or inadequate responses to the coup, though some of those have been able to recover via strong supportive statements.

News Media

Netizens are criticizing one major private news organization for their coverage, based on perceived bias in favor of the coup. The netizens are sharing negative sentiments about the tone of the coverage, as well as the fact that this news organization was the only one to share a live broadcast of the junta press conference.

Meanwhile, the Myanmar news media continues to operate, and they appear able to report most news related to the coup. News organizations are covering protests daily across the country, publishing interviews with NLD members, reporting on statements issued by the military, and documenting violence.

One of the many pressures that journalists are under is the legitimate fear of arrest during night raids by security forces. The military has also issued two statements to news media outlets that put them under legal threat. The first statement announces that media cannot use the phrases “military coup” or “illegal government” in their reporting, and the second states that they must not criticize only one party i.e., the military. Violations of both could result in imprisonment, but this threat does not seem to have been carried out thus far. Journalists and news media outlets continue to use these phrases and report on what has been happening daily.

Facebook, published a statement outlining its policies, which include to “significantly reduce the distribution of all content on Facebook Pages and profiles run by the Myanmar Military (“Tatmadaw”) that have continued to spread misinformation” and “indefinitely [suspend] the ability for Myanmar government agencies to send content removal requests to Facebook.”

However, many netizens – and journalists, in particular – say that they are worried that Facebook conversations are being tracked, so they are shifting to apps such as Telegram, Zello, and Signal for messaging while continuing to use Facebook and Twitter to access information and spread news.

Netizen Boycotts and Advertising

Netizens are criticizing and threatening boycotts of brands that broadcast advertisements on state-owned channels MWD & MRTV.  This includes some global brands that have responded on social media by denying advertising contracts with these channels.

VERO RECOMMENDATIONS FOR BRANDS

Updating our recommendations made last week, we advise the following: 

  • Positive Contributions: Brand leaders look into how they can make a positive contribution to Myanmar’s future. There are myriad ways to ensure people’s basic needs are being met. There are also opportunities for brands and companies to contribute in areas such as healthcare, education, independent journalism, and support for small businesses. Rather than staying on the sidelines, consider taking a service-minded approach and seeking ways to be useful to the public. 
  • Monitor reputations closely: Misinformation and disinformation threats are persistent, and companies and brands must monitor their reputations closely for both unintentional inaccuracies and deliberate attacks. Risk areas include products and brands, market-related news, and personnel. Misinformation continues to circulate about brands with potential links to the military. Clarification of independence is crucial.   
  • Support local independent media: Another way for brands to help is to support independent local media by advertising with them.
  • Advise brand ambassadors and influencers: Brands in partnerships with influencers should monitor sentiments around them and provide them with expertise on crafting their social media statements to avoid backlash.  
  • Support your local employees: Consider how to position yourself with regards to your employees demonstrating during business hours. There is a significant chance that many of your employees will want to participate in the massive demonstrations taking part in Myanmar, and they will expect you to support them. Failure to outline clearly how you will do so may lead to backlash. 
    • Means of support include providing paid time off, information on the best ways to protect oneself while protesting, and safety equipment for those who plan to protest – such as goggles, umbrellas, raincoats, and gloves, as well as face masks and sanitizers for virus protection. 
    • Share internal guidelines on where your brand stands and whether and how much your employees may leverage that stance in their political actions, both in-person and online.  

10.02.2021 / Briefing #2

It has been a dramatic and challenging week in Myanmar, as protests and civil disobedience have expanded across the country despite the military government’s imposition of martial law. As of yesterday, in defiance of a ban stated by the military, over 1 million people protested in the streets of Yangon alone, facing police with water cannons, rubber bullets, and live rounds.

Protests have also erupted across the country in Nay Pyi Daw, Mandalay, Bago, Myingyan, Pathein, Dawei, Myawaddy, Myeik, Hpakan, Mawlamyeine, Taunggyi, Hakha, Magway, Pyin Oo Lwin, Mawgyun, Monya, and Mogok. The International Commission of Jurists has declared the coup a violation of both international law and the Myanmar constitution, and The UN Human Rights Council could decide on sanctions to impose on Myanmar when it convenes this Friday.

For those doing business in the country, the situation is both critically important and somewhat difficult to follow, which is exacerbated by internet limitations and shutdowns. To help support our clients, the business community, and the communications industry in Myanmar, we at Vero have gathered some of the most important developments of the last week, as well as our updated recommendations for how brands should respond. We will continue to provide updates at least weekly, or more often if the situation demands.

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS

Businesses are taking a stand

  • Many small and medium-sized businesses are taking a stand by refusing to sell any products linked to the military, including cigarettes and beer. They are becoming more active, which has prompted a discussion on where larger brands stand.
  • Most major companies have been silent and are monitoring the situation, but we expect that the public may begin targeting them with negative online pressure – and potentially boycotts – soon.
  • Razer co-founder Lim Kang made news when he said he will pull his investment out of MEHL.
  • Japanese beer company Kirin has also exited its partnership with the military-owned company MEHL.
  • Foreign Telecommunication operators Telenor and Ooredo are being pressured on social media to stop complying with the army’s regular requests for internet cuts and restrictions.
  • Brands communicating promotional commercial content received backlash, including an foreign beer brand, a fast food pizza brand, and a mobile gaming company, all of which posted regular content unrelated to politics in the past 48 hours and received negative feedback from followers.

KOLs are issuing statements of support

  • Influencers – especially those with international reach & presence – are now expected to use their platforms to spread awareness of what is happening and encourage their followers to join the anti-coup movement.
  • Some influencers are being called out for not showing support sooner:
      • A lifestyle & beauty social media influencer made an initial statement that was ambiguous and looked as though it was only due to self-preservation. As a result, she appears to have been removed as Brand Ambassador by an international FMCG company.
      • One content creator’s lack of a statement caused negative comments among his followers, and an alcohol brand requested that he hide content he had made for them on his page. After he posted a video in support of the movement, the request was dropped.
      • A sports influencer initially faced backlash, but has recovered after making statements that clearly condemn the coup. This influencer made an initial statement on Feb 3 that seemed to lack conviction, during a time when other celebrities and influencers were making strong statements against the military. His follow-up statement further angered people, as he still did not outwardly condemn the coup. Soon after, both two brands halted their partnerships with him. The influencer finally posted a third statement Monday night with a strong stance against the military, which seems to have satisfied his followers, though it is unclear whether he has regained his partnerships.

More civil workers have joined the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM)

  • In Mandalay, firefighters joined the CDM and protested
  • In Yangon, two rectors of the country’s top university of medicine were reported to quit their jobs and joined the CDM
  • Yesterday KBZ banks across the country were closed as many of their employees joined the CDM and protests
  • Employees of Yangon Electricity Supply Corporation and Yangon City Development Committee joined the CDM and protests
  • Teachers across the country are leaving their jobs to join the CDM
  • 71 engineers were reported to resign from military-owned telecommunication company MyTel
  • Employees from the railway department have taken to the streets and joined the CDM
  • A Gofundme page to support the CDM has gone viral and garnered over 60K USD

As of today, foreign governments have been individually engaging, including:

  • On Saturday (6 Feb), the British Embassy in Myanmar expressed concern over how the shutdown may potentially be used against the people of Myanmar. “The U.K. has been clear that the state of emergency must not be used as a smokescreen for a crackdown on rights and freedoms,” the mission tweeted.
  • The US Embassy in Myanmar also tweeted on Saturday (6 Feb) with a similar sentiment to the UK Embassy.
  • Pope Francis, who visited Myanmar in 2017, expressed “solidarity with the people” in clear opposition to the coup and asks the country’s leaders to serve the common good and seek “democratic” harmony at his Sunday (7 Feb) address in St. Peter’s Square.
  • Australia‘s foreign minister says Canberra is “deeply concerned” about reports that an Australian national has been detained in Myanmar, days after a military coup. Local media identified the Australian as Sean Turnell, an economic adviser to Myanmar’s deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
  • As of Tuesday, 9th, the New Zealand government has formally suspended ties with Myanmar to ban visits from military leaders.

The communication landscape has been deeply affected

  • Following the initial Facebook shutdown, many people in Myanmar turned to Twitter to share updates with each other and the outside world, often using the hashtag #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar
  • After a country-wide shutdown of the internet last weekend, it is currently back up and running, but with targeted restrictions on Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Twitter.
  • Those platforms are still widely used, mainly thanks to VPNs. Some VPN providers such as NordVPN have even raised their paywall for people in Myanmar.
  • Journalists and many others are buying Singaporean and Thai sim cards to access the internet in the event of another blackout.

VERO’S RECOMMENDATIONS FOR BRANDS

Updating our recommendations made last week, we advise the following:

  • As we enter the second week of the military coup, the public’s anger, fear, and passion has never been stronger. As more brands, SMEs, civil workers, and influencers join the movement, multinational brands will be expected to take a stance as well.
      • While we suggest continuing to pause all campaign activities, it’s also important to be proactive.
      • Multinational brands can put out a statement that is not political but which reassures stakeholders, consumers, and employees that they will be supported during this crisis.
      • If executive leadership is aligned, it may be worth taking a more explicit political stance by openly supporting the protest movement and condemning the military coup.
  • More than ever, exercise care and compassion for your audiences in every form of communication
  • If you have an employee presence in Myanmar, study how you want to position yourself with regards to your employees demonstrating during business hours. There is a high chance that many of your employees will want to participate in the massive demonstrations taking part in Myanmar, and they will expect you support them. Failure to outline clearly how you will do say may cause backlash. Means of support include providing paid time-off, information on the best ways to protect themselves while protesting, and safety equipment (goggles, umbrellas, raincoats, and gloves, plus face masks and sanitizers for virus protection) for those who plan to protest.
  • If you have an employee presence in Myanmar, you should also share internal guidelines with them on where your brand stands and whether and how much your employees may leverage that stance in their political actions offline and online.
  • Brands should continue to vigilantly monitor their reputations and have crisis response plans ready to protect them. Misinformation continues to circulate about brands with potential links to the military. Clarification of your independence is crucial.
  • Brands in partnerships with influencers should monitor sentiments around them and provide them with expertise on crafting their social media statements to avoid backlash.
  • We advise brands to proactively start mapping crisis scenarios and developing contingency plans for each. Possible situations include an increase in pressure on brands to take a stance, or a situation where your brand’s ties to the military (or lack thereof) are incorrectly portrayed in the press and on social media.
  • Brands and organizations that can provide services to the country’s people which are currently lacking should seek ways to help.

04.02.2021 / Briefing #1

Earlier this week, life in Myanmar changed dramatically for the country’s nearly 55 million people as the military imposed a state of emergency and formally took power, detaining the leaders of Myanmar’s governing party, which had won a landslide election in November according to election observers. The airports were temporarily closed. The Internet was restricted and continues to be unstable. Banks paused their services.

Many people in Myanmar are now living every moment with heavy hearts and justified anxiety. It is a somber time in what is normally a vibrant country, with the possibility of escalation a constant source of dread.

The team members and clients of our agency office in Yangon are dealing with this new reality, and we feel it is our responsibility to provide some measure of guidance. To that end, we’re sharing the following communication guidelines for all brands and agencies active in Myanmar:

  • More than ever, exercise care and compassion for your audiences in every form of communication.
  • If your brand has an employee presence in Myanmar, focus your time and resources on helping them navigate the current crisis. Provide platforms for them to connect in the event of further outages and outline your position with regards to current events as well as you can.
  • We suggest pausing most standard campaigns for at least two weeks. Now is not the time to focus on commercial activity, and appeals to do so risk coming across as tone-deaf.
  • Brands should be vigilant about monitoring their reputations and have a plan ready to protect them. Already, there is misinformation circulating about brands with potential links to the military. Clarification of your independence is crucial.
  • Brands should also review and monitor all current and past links to state-owned enterprises and assess how these links might affect their reputations.
  • Brands should carefully consider, on a case-by-case basis, what they can and cannot say to their people, stakeholders, and customers. Many feel that brands should take a stance, and in some cases they may be right, but each brand’s circumstances are unique. On such a critical issue, any stance you take must be one you’re prepared to back up in practice.
  • Brands and organizations that can provide services to the country’s people which are currently lacking should seek ways to help.

Anyone expecting definitive answers about what to do next will have a difficult time. It’s a fluid situation that needs to be constantly monitored. We’ve talked to journalists and a number of leading media, and they too are looking for guidance. Answers will come, but we cannot predict how or when, just as we could not predict that this would happen when it did.

However, there are some things that are very clear today:

  • Business as usual is on hold. People in Myanmar are fully aware of this, but for those overseas, we want to emphasize the need to take stock of the situation and be ready to respond.
  • The Internet is currently operational, but it is unstable and there is the potential for further shutdowns.
  • On early Thursday February 4th, access to Facebook was blocked on local internet providers. Although the new government indicated that this would only hold until Feb. 7th, we assume that it might stay blocked longer. This announces a new status-quo for communications in Myanmar, where a political power can now decide to open or close the country’s most popular communication and information channel.
  • Access to banks and ATMs was disrupted on February 1, but they have been operating normally from February 2 onwards. Like the internet, they could be targeted again.
  • The military has announced that there will be no domestic or international flights until May 31, and all flight permissions have been revoked.
  • Local media is not fully reporting current events, fearing government backlash. Expect a delay in news of new developments. Journalists and influencers are at risk of being charged. On February 2nd, it was reported that Information Ministry released a statement warning media and citizens to not spread false rumors or incite unrest.
  • Many online influencers are speaking out with political messaging. There is a civil disobedience movement gaining momentum on Facebook (the most widely used internet portal in Myanmar). As of Tuesday, 2/02, it is reported that 28 hospitals in 18 cities announced a strike. On Wednesday 03/02, it was reported that 71 engineers collectively resigned from a state-owned telecom company. It is also reported that the National Health Laboratory (NHL) and the Department of Food and Drug Administration will also join the campaign. As the NHL is the main testing center for Covid-19, the testing process may be disrupted.
  • International journalists are still able to report on what they see, mainly via Twitter. Turn to local representatives of global press agencies for regular updates.
  • There is reportedly the possibility that the official social media communication channels of the overthrown government have been taken over by competing political parties and are now being used against them.

We at Vero are closely monitoring the current situation as it develops and anticipating further challenges, even as we hope for a positive outcome in the long-term that respects the desires of the vast majority of people in Myanmar. Meanwhile, if you have questions, we are here to provide support and information.

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