Shoppers Boycott Vietnamese-Owned Myanmar Plaza After Attack On Anti-Junta Protesters

Jason Nguyen

What happened?

On November 26, multiple major Myanmar newspapers reported that Yangon’s most popular shopping center, Myanmar Plaza, was deserted after local shoppers began a boycott following an attack on anti-junta protesters by its security team.

Videos and images of the attack, which began to circulate online shortly after the crackdown, showed the mall security guards in white uniforms chasing and assaulting young demonstrators while they were peacefully protesting inside the mall. Some protesters appeared to be injured after the attack.

According to news outlets The Irrawaddy and Coconuts Yangon, the incident happened when a group of young protesters staged a flash mob protest at Myanmar Plaza. This premise is the country’s first international shopping center, located in a mixed-use complex owned by Vietnamese conglomerate Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL), to show their opposition to the military’s violence against women.

It was reported that about seven demonstrators, including one female participant, had gathered at the mall, flashing the iconic three-finger salute while displaying a banner promoting the nonviolent “End Impunity, End Violence Against Women” campaign. They were also calling on people not to use the military-linked bus services as part of Myanmar’s people movement to boycott junta-controlled businesses.

The mall security staff reportedly began to break up the group, physically assaulting and detaining demonstrators. “Two young males were apprehended, but they fought back and managed to flee,” an unnamed source told the Burmese-language news agency Khit Thit media. “One of them has been admitted to the hospital, and at the mall, security guards kicked him in the thigh.”

Security guards with a protester (left) and the deserted-looking Myanmar Plaza (right). Photo: CJ/Khit Thit Media

Other protesters were reportedly released afterward unharmed.

However, the incident has sparked widespread outrage and anger among the public in Myanmar, with many condemning the brutal treatment by the mall security towards peaceful anti-regime protesters. People shortly called for a boycott of the Vietnamese-owned shopping mall, home to hundreds of retail outlets, cafes, restaurants, bars, and banks.

The boycott includes several campaigns calling on people not to buy commodities from the shops in Myanmar Plaza, a source familiar with the campaign told The Vietnamese Magazine. Protesters also review-bombed the mall on Google Maps, forcing the retailers located inside the mall to take down their online addresses to avoid being affiliated with bad reviews.

This campaign resulted in the closure of almost 80 percent of retail shops in the center. Many retailers, including foreign brands Adidas and Sony, said that they were considering relocating their business elsewhere in response to the shoppers’ boycott call.

Vietnam’s investment in Myanmar

After the attack, the plaza management had issued an apology to those who were attacked. admitting that the actions of some security guards against protesters were “unacceptable.”

“[T]he management had [not given orders] for such violent actions, which are contrary to the norms and values of employees and business partners of Myanmar Plaza,” Myanmar-based Mizzima newspaper quoted the mall statement as saying.

Myanmar Plaza, part of a US$440 million two-phase project to build a multi-purpose complex called Myanmar Center in Yangon, was completed in 2015, along with other luxury facilities, including a five-star hotel, retail spaces, restaurants, and offices, and apartments for lease. According to the Myanmar Times, the investment deal was signed between Myanmar’s Ministry of Tourism and Vietnam-based HAGL after the ministry welcomed foreign companies to invest in Myanmar's tourism sector.

The second phase of the HAGL-funded project was kick-started in 2016 and was completed in 2018.

Hoang Anh Gia Lai Myanmar Center in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo: Hoang Anh Gia Lai.

According to The Irrawaddy, HAGL was granted an investment license by Soe Thane, the Myanmar Investment Commission chairman under the ex-military general Thein Sein government.

Vietnamese investment in Myanmar had increased significantly between 2010 and 2015. In 2010, Vietnamese foreign direct investment into Myanmar was worth $23.65 million. By the end of 2015, investment from Vietnam in its neighboring country was estimated to be worth $690 million, with ten projects approved by the Myanmar Investment Commission from 73 Vietnamese enterprises.

Hoang Anh Gia Lai Joint Stock Company, or Hoang Anh Gia Lai, is a Vietnamese company primarily engaged in agriculture. According to Reuters, its operation is organized under six segments, including the agriculture segment, which owns and manages plantations, and the real estate segment, which develops residential properties for sale and leases office spaces and commercial complexes.

The company had faced multiple allegations of their involvement in deforestation and illegal land grabbing activities to develop their agriculture segment.

In a report titled “Rubber Barons” released 2017 by Global Witness, an organization campaigning to hold companies and governments accountable for their impact on the environment, HAGL and the state-owned Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG) were accused of carrying out forced land grabs without compensation as well as illegal logging in protected forests to expand their rubber plantations in Laos and Cambodia.

According to the Global Witness report, international investors in HAGL and VRG, including the German Deutsche Bank and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC), have divested their investment in both companies. Meanwhile, local communities in Cambodia who lost land to HAGL “are still in negotiations with the company” at the time under a dispute resolution process initiated by the IFC.

The boycott results

Almost two weeks since the Yangon residents began their boycott of Myanmar Plaza, photos published by several local online newspapers on social media show that the city’s most popular shopping center was eerily empty as shoppers continued their call to punish the mall. Most of the shops located inside Myanmar Plaza have been pictured with their roller shutters half-closed while the alleys were deserted.

In the comment section on an online post from The Irrawaddy, many local internet users expressed their satisfaction with the results.

Other shoppers believed that the mall management had given security staff the green light to attack anti-junta protesters. “Those staff dare to do [attack us] only because their boss instructed them to,” a user named Yin Min wrote on Facebook.”

The shopping center remains empty as the people’s boycott continues. Photo: The Irrawaddy.

The campaign had financially affected the center, especially after months of COVID-19 restrictions that drove shoppers away. It also coincides with the Christmas shopping season, usually one of the mall’s profit-making occasions.

Several taxi and delivery companies have also announced that they will postpone delivery services for Myanmar Plaza and offices inside the complex.

In February this year, protesters also called for the boycott of Tatmadaw-linked businesses, including Mytel Telecom, a joint venture between Viettel and the Myanmar military. Viettel, a telecom company, owned by Vietnam’s Ministry of Defense, controls 49 percent of Mytel shares. In contrast, Star High Company Ltd., a subsidiary of military-owned conglomerate Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. (MEC), holds around 28 percent of the shares.

The boycott campaign is continuing, one unnamed source told The Vietnamese Magazine.

PoliticsHuman RightsMyanmarAnti-JuntaMyannmarHoang Anh Gia Lai