Mi Chan (pseudonym) argues that Yale should assess its links to the Myanmar military.
Lux et veritas. Light and truth. These are the words proudly emblazoned on the banners that adorn Yale’s New Haven buildings, stamped in the seals imprinted in the diplomas we earn after graduating, guiding us during the years we pore through books and listen to lectures, always to learn more, to do better, to thrive for the most.
I went to Yale for my undergraduate studies where I took classes on conflict resolution and was mentored by pre-eminent academics in understanding root causes and patterns of genocide. I tried to understand how and why people commit mass atrocities, and what political and social forces enable them. I believed that the more we study atrocities, the more we can do to prevent them. I have since realized that a key element in the enablement of mass atrocities is the mobilization of financial resources that powers and legitimizes oppressive regimes. I’ve been dismayed to see a representative of a Yale-founded institution linked to the funding of the Myanmar military.
Here is a truth: in 2011, Kay Kuok Oon Kwong, the Director of Shangri-La Hotel Limited and niece of Malaysia’s richest man, was announced as the Chair of the Yale-NUS Governing Board. Yale-NUS was jointly founded by Yale and NUS in 2011 and Yale-NUS graduates join the ranks of the Yale Alumni Association as international affiliates. When Kuok joined the Governing Board, she was also the Director of the Trader Square Group (a subsidiary of Shangri-La Asia), which signed a land lease agreement with the Quartermaster General, an office of the Myanmar military under the Ministry of Defense. The land lease agreement was to develop an office tower and retail mall, Sule Square, in Yangon. As the Director, Kuok was responsible for overseeing the agreement. The following year, in a public ceremony, Kuok thanked the Quartermaster General for leasing the land. In October 2017, the Sule Square development was opened, with Kuok present at the ceremony.
Myanmar’s Quartermaster General plays a key role in managing the military’s business, and is responsible for purchasing arms and for Ministry of Defense budget requests to the Parliament. Due to its role in managing supplies and budgets, it is responsible for managing leasing arrangements for military-owned land across the country. The defense budget, managed by the Quartermaster General, is used to fund the purchase of weapons and military supplies, such as a missile director system, that in turn has been used to commit genocide against the Rohingya and vast crimes against humanity against ethnic groups in Myanmar.
Kuok’s opening ceremony of the Sule Square took place 2 months after the Rohingya clearance operations committed by the Myanmar military, which, in September 2017 alone, resulted in the deaths of at least 6,700 Rohingya, followed by the exodus of 742,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh and the internal displacement of over 130,000 Rohingya. In December 2019, the Myanmar military was brought to the International Court of Justice for genocidal acts against the Rohingya.
Here is some light: By leasing land from and engaging in business with the Myanmar military, Kuok is directly contributing to the financing of the military, which may amount to aiding and abetting the commission of their international crimes. The UN Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar in 2019 examined the military’s sources of revenue that “enhances its ability to carry out gross violations of human rights with impunity”. The report assessed how the military uses its own businesses in addition to foreign companies to support military operations. The Mission examined military owned businesses, such as MEC and MEHL, and named Shangri-La’s land lease in its report. It found that “any foreign business involving the Tatmadaw poses a high risk of contributing to or being linked to violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law”. It recommended that foreign businesses sever ties with the Myanmar military to ensure they were not complicit in crimes against humanity. The Mission stated it “puts companies on further and effective notice of the human rights implications that arise from maintaining business connections with the Tatmadaw”. Yet Kuok continued to maintain her business with the Myanmar military, paying likely significant amounts in land leasing that go directly to the Myanmar army. Although the exact terms of the Sule Square land lease are unknown, a different shopping and hotel complex in Yangon brings in about $20 million a year to the military.
On February 1 2021, the Myanmar military attempted a coup d’etat and has escalated its crimes nationwide, which, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, almost certainly amount to crimes against humanity. The violence since the coup is part of a continuation of decades of extreme violence perpetuated against ethnic and religious minorities, including the Rohingya. Over the 3 months since the coup, the Myanmar military has killed over 780 people, including over 40 children, arbitrarily imprisoned over 3800 people, internally displaced 50,000 individuals, and has injured and tortured countless others. There is video evidence of men being burnt alive, rescue workers and doctors being shot and abducted for helping the injured, and the bodies of the murdered being held for ransom by military soldiers, depriving families of closure. Many activists, politicians, ordinary people who are holding on to hope for a future free of repression and fear are on the run. Yet they continue to fight for their rights, and they demand that, at the very least, the international community stop providing the military with the finances to brutalize them.
Given the escalation of violence since the coup, various companies have been assessing their business connections to the military more seriously. The Singapore Stock Exchange (SGX) has announced suspension of trading of ETC, a company that is involved in leasing land from the Quartermaster General. Civil society organizations, including Human Rights Watch, sent a submission to the UN Working Group on Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and Other Businesses inquiring into the land lease agreements of Japanese businesses with the Quartermaster General. Kuok’s tenants, Coca Cola and McKinsey & Company, stated they would terminate their lease from the Sule Square office, and Reuters and the World Bank Group stated they were reviewing their plans.
And while this is happening, Kuok, the Chair of the Yale-NUS Governing Board, allegedly continues her business with the Myanmar’s military junta.
The Governing Board of Yale-NUS provides “oversight of the College and its development and management,” and is responsible for overseeing the operations and establishing policies for the college. As the Chair of the Governing Board, Kuok thus plays a very important role in the strategic direction of the college, which makes it all the more paramount to assess whether and how her business interests might be impacting the college.
In particular, although Yale-NUS’ spokesperson Jeannie Tay Meow Sein has stated that Kuok’s business affairs are distinct from her role on the Governing Board, Kuok’s role raises questions about whether Yale-NUS is receiving donations from her, and whether these donations are tainted with the carnage of the Myanmar military. It raises the question overall about the finances of Yale-NUS, and where these finances come from.
There were concerns from students and professors about Yale extending its outreach to Singapore due to limits on freedom of expression in the country, nonetheless Yale established Yale-NUS and continues to play an ancillary role in the school. Yale’s mission states that it is “committed to improving the world today and for future generations”. Yale President Peter Salovey, who sits on the Governing Board of Yale-NUS, has written that “the country and the world need the very best from Yale – right now”. The best cannot entail doing business with a murderous regime.
As one of the founders of Yale-NUS, it is past time that Yale shed light and truth on its school in Singapore, conduct a thorough investigation into Kuok’s business affairs in Myanmar, and assess whether she is representing or compromising Yale’s mission to improve the world.
(Featured image from Flickr Creative Commons)
Mi Chan (pseudonym) is an alumnus of Yale University who has carried out economic and social development work in Myanmar.