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Protesters chant slogans during an anti-coup protest at Sule Square in downtown Yangon, Myanmar, on Feb. 17, 2021.

Hkun Lat/Getty Images

A local affiliate of Colliers International, the international property management company headquartered in Toronto, is a leasing agent for a high-end building in Myanmar built on land owned by an arm of the country’s military.

The Sule Square complex is located on land owned by the Quartermaster General Office of the country’s army (officially known as Tatmadaw), which is tasked with securing supplies for its forces – including, activists say, the bullets and artillery used to kill more than 700 civilians since the Feb. 1 coup.

Colliers, which operates in Myanmar through an affiliate, has maintained its interest in the property despite years of efforts by United Nations experts to push foreign companies to sever ties with a military that has a long history of killing its own people, including Rohingya Muslims and anti-coup demonstrators.

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The Sule Square example also highlights gaps in Canada’s sanctions toward Myanmar, which are narrowly written and do not specifically cover the office of the Quartermaster General, despite a fresh warning on Tuesday in an advisory from Global Affairs Canada that Ottawa “expects Canadian companies active abroad, in any market or country, to respect human rights, operate lawfully, conduct their activities in a responsible manner and adopt voluntary best practices and internationally respected guidelines.”

The link between Sule Square and Tatmadaw has been public since 2019, with the publication of a report by the United Nations Human Rights Council’s independent international fact-finding mission. It describes “the Quartermaster General Office-owned land leased to the Sule Shangri-La Hotel and Sule Square commercial project.”

The Quartermaster is “the clearing point” for procuring weapons and other supplies for the army, said Marzuki Darusman, the former attorney-general of Indonesia, who led the fact-finding mission. Foreigners are not allowed to own real estate in Myanmar, with only a few exceptions. The terms of any lease agreements on Sule Square are not known. State media reports showed that the initial contract to develop the site was made directly with the Quartermaster General Office and the Ministry of Defence.

Leaked documents show that a different shopping and hotel plaza in Yangon generated roughly US$20-million a year in revenue for the military, said Chris Sidoti, an Australian human-rights lawyer who was an expert on the fact-minding mission and now serves with Mr. Darusman on the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, an independent group of international experts working to support human rights in the country.

There are “probably hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign money flowing to military coffers because of business arrangements like this,” he said. “It’s funding the military’s operations.”

Myanmar was never transitioning to democracy. Now the international community knows that for sure

Shangri-La did not answer questions sent by e-mail. Colliers International distanced itself from its brand in Myanmar, which calls itself Colliers International but that the company says is run separately.

“Operations under the Colliers brand in Myanmar are carried out by an independent franchisee entity under its own management and direction,” said Colliers global communications manager Andrea Cheung.

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Colliers International Group “holds no direct or indirect ownership in such entity,” she said, declining further comment, including on whether Colliers receives revenue from Myanmar. “We are not in a position to discuss the terms and conditions of the agreement with the franchisee in Myanmar,” she said.

Corporate records show that the affiliate is Colliers International Myanmar, or C.I.M. Property Consultants Co. Ltd. One of its directors, Edward Corcoran, is chief executive of Colliers International Thailand. He did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2019, Colliers affiliates provided the company with $500-million in revenue, 14 per cent of its total. Colliers specifies that its code of ethics applies to both the company and its “owned affiliates.” In an inaugural Global Impact Report released by Colliers on Monday, chief executive officer Jay Hennick promises to “align our business to maximize our positive impact.”

Among the directors who sits on the Colliers board is former prime minister Stephen Harper, who boasted in 2009 that Canada had “imposed the toughest sanctions in the entire world” on Myanmar after it sentenced Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to house arrest. In 2020, Colliers paid Mr. Harper US$338,150 in cash and stock options. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Marketing materials from Colliers say that Sule Square offers “panoramic views of the colourful city from an unparalleled location for both business and leisure.” The complex boasts dozens of shops, a supermarket, five storeys of parking and more than 320,000 square feet of rentable office space. It is situated next to the Sule Shangri-La hotel in Yangon.

In March, the Canadian government said the primary objective of Canada’s escalating sanctions against Myanmar is “to put pressure on the Tatmadaw to change its behaviour and reverse its actions.” Those sanctions name 54 people and 44 entities.

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But they do not include Tatmadaw itself, nor the Quartermaster General Office or the officer in charge of it. That makes it unlikely the sanctions cover a property such as Sule Square.

“There’s a good argument that if the government had intended to impose sanctions against the Quartermaster General, they would have listed it,” said John Boscariol, a lawyer who leads the international trade and investment law group at McCarthy Tétrault LLP.

Experts have called for a complete cut to business ties with Myanmar’s military, regardless of the specifics of sanctions.

“We are aiming for a blanket termination of all transactions, which may end up with the Tatmadaw acquiring money from their investments with international corporations,” Mr. Darusman said. It’s an effort to squeeze funds available to the country’s generals, but also to stoke division between them, in hopes of forcing the military to negotiate on who holds power in the country, he said.

Other major international companies have come under pressure to exit Myanmar. South Korean steelmaker Posco is now reviewing options that include selling its joint steel venture with Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd, a military-owned firm, or taking full control of the project, Reuters reported earlier this month. On Monday, Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone was removed from the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices in part because of what S&P Dow Jones called “heightened risks to the company regarding their commercial relationship with Myanmar’s military, who are alleged to have committed serious human rights abuses under international law.”

Myanmar’s ousted civilian government has called for international oil companies, including Petronas, PTTEP and Total, to freeze payments to the military. Total chief executive officer Patrick Pouyanné has resisted those calls, saying the company will continue producing gas and paying taxes in order to maintain electrical generation in the country and keep its staff from being forced into labour.

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Human-rights advocates have called on Ottawa, meanwhile, to more rigorously apply and police its sanctions.

“Canadian sanctions should prevent companies like Colliers carrying out business linked to the Myanmar military,” said Yadanar Maung, the assumed name used by a spokesperson for Justice for Myanmar, a group of activists who work anonymously to protect their safety.

“The Canadian government must take all action at its disposal to stop Canadian complicity in atrocity crimes in Myanmar.”

In a statement, Global Affairs Canada spokesman Michel Cimpaye said: “Contravening Canadian sanctions is a criminal offence. All persons in Canada and Canadians abroad must comply with Canada’s strict sanctions measures.”

He added that “possible violations and offences involving Canada’s sanctions are investigated and enforced” by the Canada Border Services Agency and the RCMP.

But Canada does not have a robust enforcement record, said Michael Nesbitt, a researcher and associate professor at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Law.

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“There has never been a sanctions prosecution related to violations of the Myanmar Regulations,” he said.

Since 1992, Canadian authorities have mounted only two attempted prosecutions under Canadian sanctions legislation, the Special Economic Measures Act, “despite much public evidence to suggest violations are happening out of Canada,” Prof. Nesbitt said.

With a report from David Milstead

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