Myanmar military coup: How are agencies and businesses reacting?

Two agency leaders in Myanmar—who have been vocal against the military takeover this week—talk about the futility of sanctions, the rise of consumer activism, and the radical power of social media.

A man reading the national headline a day after Myanmar's military detained the country's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the country's president in a coup. (Getty Images)
A man reading the national headline a day after Myanmar's military detained the country's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the country's president in a coup. (Getty Images)

On Feb 1, Myanmar's military seized power after detaining de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders, and declaring a year-long state of emergency. International states including the US and UK have condemned the coup, and the US has threatened to impose sanctions. Local civilians banged on pots and pans last night to express dismay; it's a local tradition to beat on tin or metal buckets to ward away evil energy. Meanwhile doctors and medical professionals at more than 40 government hospitals announced that they would stop working in protest.

Amid this difficult time for residents, how is the local marcomms industry reacting? Aye Hnin Swe (Rose), CEO of Mango Myanmar Group, told PRWeek that she is still dealing with her emotions from Monday's events. "I have to admit that I am more angry, and became sad, than scared. Young executives in my community are now feeling lost. I felt that the past 10 years got thrown into the drain, but realised that we shall continue building up," she said.

Swe has been working in the advertising and PR sector in Myanmar for over 19 years, first with Bates Indochina, then setting up Zenith Media Myanmar before co-founding Mango Media, which is now a group of companies spanning advertising, media, PR digital marketing and programmatic trading. The company's growth has paralled that of the country's economic progress following democratic reforms in the early 2010s, and its client list includes major MNCs such as Unilever and Coca-Cola.

As a business leader, Swe knows economic sanctions will cause extra difficulty for ordinary people and therefore chill the advertising industry.

"I am sure all big international investors are now reconsidering their activities or putting things on pause," she said. And the prospect of sanctions complicates matters. "Businesses will surely experience difficulties with international banking and receive an increased amount of pressure. So far, I could not see a tremendous impact on economic growth, as it's not that great in 2020. However we should expect 10 to 20 percent down in the next quarter," she said.

Swe noted that sanctions by the US would most impact American companies that are doing business in Myanmar, but added that US companies represent a fairly small amount of activity compared with investments from other countries, chiefly China. Thus sanctions might not impact the military leaders of the coup. "It will be good if they can impose sanctions on properties and businesses of those generals," she said.

Anthony Larmon, managing director at PR firm Era Myanmar, told PRWeek that up till now, there's been optimism in the air since Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party won the general elections in 2015.

"A return to USDP rule really seemed unthinkable for most of us here," said Larmon. "But it's a politically unstable market, so mentally, we've been prepared for moments like this."

Yesterday, Larmon made a pledge—which he publicly posted on LinkedIn—for his agency to no longer represent military-owned companies. Military-owned or affiliated companies are pervasive across all industries in Myanmar, including consumer-facing brands.

In the post, he said: "Our employees and our reputation are our two most valuable assets, and now is a time where we need to be sensitive to both. As Myanmar's marketing communications industry leader, we feel it is important to hold ourselves to the same values and standards as our other clients, who themselves are responsible industry leaders."

Larmon told PRWeek that while turning down business is not an easy decision especially when the company has stakeholders to answer to, he felt the priority now was to stand in solidarity and show empathy towards its people as well as clients.

"Someone who's never lived in the market can't begin to imagine how dejected people feel here, and how scared they are that the international community will impose sanctions against them. There's a feeling that they have to face this whole issue by themselves," said Larmon.

"We wanted to reassure our people that we're not going to turn tail and run. Because sanctions are not the answer. Disengaging from Myanmar is not the answer. That's been tried and it didn't affect the military at all and the people suffered. So our concern is more for communities here, which is why we took that stance."

Larmon added that money shouldn't be the end-all of doing business, and if it were, PR as an industry wouldn't exist in the first place. "If you're telling your clients to have a purpose and take a stand, but you don't do it yourself, what's the point?" he said.

Larmon's LinkedIn post is just one example of a small, radical form of protest that's been taking place across the country. What was previously limited to civil societies and certain activist groups has developed a groundswell of support from residents across all walks of life. And just like consumers are voting with their dollars in other markets, the case is the same in Myanmar.

For example, MyTel—a military-owned telco operator—is seeing a huge consumer-driven charge to throw away SIM cards and cancellation of services. Larmon said that because civilians have been encouraged to keep the peace and not resort to violence, consumer activism through purchasing choices is stepping up.

Brands, especially MNCs, have been coming out with statements that it will continue to operate in the market. AIA, a client of Era's, said on Instagram (above) that it was going to stay and serve residents. An excerpt of the statement reads: "AIA Myanmar states, with strong conviction, its core belief in being there for the people of Myanmar not just in good times, but in times of uncertainty." While the statement itself is generic and not swinging towards any one side, Larmon said it was a powerful moment because it's sends a fearless signal to other brands in the market. "The brands who react first are going be the ones who win hearts here," he added.

Local brands, meanwhile, have been more hesitant to generate statements except for SMEs run by younger folk, Larmon said. Influencers too have been under a great deal of scrutiny to speak up and use their platforms for good, or risk losing followers.

One of the country's biggest influencers, Nay Chi Oo, lost a few hundred thousand followers overnight for her family being associated with the military. She has since posted a statement (see Instagram post above) to say that despite growing up in a military family background, she condemns anyone who has been involved in the current military coup that ignores the will of the people. Musician Sai Sai Kham Leng and actor Nay Toe have also been under intense pressure from followers to condemn the coup. Larmon said that these influencers being "targets" of a movement will get them to make a statement, even if only for self-preservation.

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