Protesters hoping to stop New Belgium Brewing’s pending sale to a subsidiary of international beer conglomerate Kirin Holdings made their case to top executives on Saturday, just days before voting on the deal was set to finish.
After demonstrators gathered outside the Fort Collins brewery, chanting and holding handwritten signs reading “KIRIN FUNDS GENOCIDE,” co-founder Kim Jordan approached the group and invited them inside to talk. KUNC did not gain entry to the meeting.
At the heart of protesters’ concerns were Kirin’s ties to Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), a military-run business enterprise with a stake in Myanmar Brewery, the Southeast Asian country’s largest beer manufacturer. Kirin owns a majority stake in the brewery.
According to emails published by Amnesty International, staff members of Myanmar Brewery gave about $30,000 to Myanmar’s military authorities in 2017. At least some of the donations, human rights groups say, could have been used to fund violence against the country’s Rohingya minority.
Both Kirin and the military have said the donations were intended for humanitarian aid.
The Rohingya people are a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar, according to the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. Since August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have fled the country.
“We want New Belgium to reconsider selling to Kirin,” said Durcie Bathin, a refugee from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) who met with Jordan. “I think it’s difficult for them to make a decision because discussions about the sale have been going on for so long.”
Bathin said she came to the United States and settled in Aurora with her three children a decade ago after her home in Burma became unsafe. Her extended family is living in exile in countries all over the world due to actions taken by the military in Myanmar, she said.
“The only thing I can do is give (New Belgium) information about what’s going on in Burma (Myanmar),” Bathin said. “It’s up to them.”
In August, the UN called for the international community to cut ties with Myanmar’s military and “the vast web of companies it controls and relies on.” The decision came after a fact-finding mission found the military used its own businesses, foreign companies and arms deals to support violence against various ethnic groups within the country.
“The revenues the military earns from domestic and foreign business deals substantially enhances its ability to carry out gross violations of human rights with impunity,” the UN said in a statement.
Kirin did not respond to repeated requests for comment from KUNC. In 2018, the company passed a new internal human rights policy, which it outlined on its website.
“We recognize that companies such as ours must continuously deepen their understanding of the potential human rights impacts association with their own business and global value chain,” the policy stated. “We will conduct our business activities in line with this.”
In a joint statement to KUNC Saturday about the meeting with members of the Fort Collins Community Action Network, which organized the protest, New Belgium executives expressed gratitude toward the protesters.
“We were very grateful and humbled to have heard the personal stories of the refugees,” the statement read. “Going forward we will continue conversations with this group and are seeking out additional advisors to be as informed as possible on this important subject matter, especially if we have the opportunity to express our values on a global platform.”
Amid criticism of the sale, New Belgium has acknowledged Kirin's business dealings in Myanmar. In an earlier statment, the company said it stood by the Japanese beer giant.
"While reports about Kirin's operations in Myanmar gave us pause, we believe Kirin's commitment to human rights aligns with our mission and we remain fully committed to our core values and beliefs," the company said.
About an hour after walking into New Belgium’s offices, FCCAN spokeswoman Cheryl Distaso stepped outside, looking disappointed.
“It’s really clear that they know what the situation is in terms of knowing who they’re going to be involved with,” Distaso said. “If they didn’t know then, they certainly know now.”
Distaso said Jordan and other executives seemed concerned about Kirin’s history in Myanmar.
“But I don’t know what they can do,” she said. “I don’t know if the deal can be stopped at this point in time.”
New Belgium’s employee owners are expected to wrap up voting on the pending sale on Dec. 17. The company is 100% employee-owned, which means a majority must vote in favor of the sale for it to go through.