The world watches as the crisis continues in Myanmar, where the Muslim Rohingya minority faces barbaric acts of ethnic cleansing.
The international community is increasingly critical of leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s resistance to intervention.
But as the Nobel Laureate sits on her hands, a small Muslim-led investment firm led an effort to get a U.S. oil giant profiting from Myanmar’s fossil fuel wealth to divest in protest of the atrocities.
The Virginia-based Azzad Asset Management started engaging in shareholder activism in 2015, a rarity among Islamic finance firms.
Bashar Qasem, Azzad’s president and CEO, was moved to escalate his activism following the election of Donald Trump in 2016. He was the only Islamic finance executive to join a letter to the president from religious shareholders in Feburary 2016 to protest restrictions against immigrants from Muslim-majority countries.
His clients, the majority of whom are Muslim, were supportive of the firm’s growing activism. “Most of them, they feel it’s about time,” he told Reuters earlier this year after the letter to Trump.
Toward the end of 2016, Azzad’s firm decided to take aim at California-based Chevron. Since 2005 it has owned the firm Unocal. Unocal has had extensive operations in Myanmar for years and settled a 2005 lawsuit related to human rights abuses that took place in proximity to its pipelines.
That was before the atrocities against the Rohingya began in 2012 — which have continued under Suu Kyi’s rule.
Joshua Brockwell, Azzad’s investment communications director, told The Intercept that the firm’s research into the atrocities in Myanmar last year moved them to act.
“We were just like everybody else, after a lot of the really horrific things occurred in 2016, we were very much interested in trying to figure out a way to do something,” he explained. “And as investors, we’re believers in this idea of leveraging capital for social purposes in addition to making money for our clients. These aren’t mutually exclusive things.”
In May, Azzad teamed up with the International Campaign for the Rohingya and a Catholic group called the Ursuline Sisters of Tildonk, U.S. Province to put forward a resolution at the annual general meeting calling on Chevron to withdraw its operations from countries suspected to be guilty of genocide, especially Myanmar.
The resolution earned the vote of 6 percent of shareholders, going down in defeat.
Simon Billenness, executive director of the International Campaign for the Rohingya, was tapped by Azzad to be present at the shareholders’ meeting and help put forth the resolution. He said Chevron’s chair and CEO John Watson was “dismissive” of the effort.
“Clearly the company right now is resisting this idea [that] a company shouldn’t do business with a government engaged in genocidal crimes against humanity,” he told The Intercept.
Although the vote was a defeat, Securities and Exchange Commission rules allow shareholders to resubmit resolutions as long as they win the support of at least 3 percent of shares in the first year, which means these activist shareholders can bring the resolution to Chevron’s 2018 meeting.
Following the vote, Billenness and others continued to organize other Chevron shareholders to pressure the company. On August 31, investors representing $30 billion of assets sent a letter to the company asking that it pressure Myanmar’s government to intervene against the atrocities. It also reiterates the demand of the Azzad resolution, calling on the company to consider withdrawing from the country.
“We cannot maintain ‘business as usual’ in a country where allegations of crimes against humanity and genocide persist,” the investors wrote.
In addition to pressuring firms that have invested in Myanmar through shareholder activism, Billenness is lobbying the Trump administration to act.
He pointed to the Myanmar sanctions that former President Barack Obama unilaterally lifted in his last months of office. “Not many people know this … but President Trump could overturn President Obama’s executive order that lifted U.S. sanctions on [Myanmar] by simply reissuing President Bush’s earlier executive order authorizing sanctions,” he noted.
In other words, with the stroke of a pen, Donald Trump could eliminate yet another Obama-era policy. The question is whether the president is willing to do so on a matter of human rights for Muslims.