Western Union Cuts Ties to Myanmar Military-Owned Bank

By Nan Lwin 8 January 2020

YANGON—Western Union, a US-based global financial transfer service, has cut ties with Myanmar’s military-owned Myawaddy Bank after human rights organizations called on the company to sever its links in light of accusations that the military is responsible for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Burma Campaign for UK (BCUK) said on Tuesday that it received the notification from Western Union that the company has stopped using military-owned Myawaddy Bank as one of its agents in Myanmar after reviewing relevant regulatory requirements and Western Union’s own policies.

Western Union said that in Myanmar and other countries in conflict, it plays a critical role in connecting people, whether families sending money to loved ones in order to meet basic needs like healthcare and food, or humanitarian aid organizations sending funds to support their work on the ground. Providing these services requires the use of local agents remunerated by a commission payment, according to BCUK.

“Western Union conducts agent due diligence and oversight through periodic reviews to determine whether these [local] agents satisfy relevant regulatory requirements and Western Union policies,” the financial transfer service provider said.

It said that as a result of such a review, Western Union has ended its contract with Myawaddy Bank, “effective immediately,” according to BCUK.

Myawaddy Bank is a subsidiary of a military business conglomerate, Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (MEHL). BCUK said that profits from Myawaddy bank benefit the Myanmar military.

In October, 33 human rights organizations sent an open letter to Western Union president Hikmet Ersek calling on him to end the company’s relationship with Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, which has been accused by UN investigators of being responsible for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The group said that by partnering with Myanmar’s generals, Western Union was risking its reputation and that of its top management.

In December 2018, BCUK named and shamed a total of 49 companies worldwide, including Western Union, that do business with Myanmar’s military in the human rights group’s “Dirty List” of firms. The companies work in sectors including energy, telecommunications and arms and military equipment. They are headquartered in countries including China, France, India, Japan, Norway, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Thailand, the UK, Ukraine, the US and Vietnam.

Myanmar’s military operates its wide-ranging business interests through two conglomerates, MEHL and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), both of which BCUK said lack transparency.

“Western Union deserve credit for doing the right thing. They are the biggest company so far to cut their business ties to the military,” said Mark Farmaner, director of BCUK.

“We will be stepping up pressure on other companies on our ‘Dirty List’ including Portia Management Services, a British company managing a military owned port in Yangon,” Farmaner said.

BCUK and the International Campaign for the Rohingya had organized a growing campaign to press Western Union to cut its ties to the Myanmar military. However, both organizations stressed that they did not want Western Union to stop operating in Myanmar, only to stop using a military-owned bank as one of its agents.

The UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar also urged the international community to cut ties with the country’s military and the companies that it controls and relies on. The UN Fact-Finding Mission said that “any foreign business activity involving the Tatmadaw and its conglomerates MEHL and MEC poses a high risk of contributing to, or being linked to, violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.”

Following the recommendations by the UN, Belgian satellite communications firm Newtec announced in August that it would cut commercial ties with Mytel, a mobile phone operator partially owned by the military.

Western Union has yet to make a public announcement to the media about its decision to end business with Myawaddy Bank.

The Irrawaddy attempted to contact Myawaddy Bank for comment on Wednesday but received no response.

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