Abstract Using the case of Burmese refugees in South Korea, this study reveals how the convergence of democratization in the homeland and the attainment of legal refugee status prompted former political exiles to establish socially responsible businesses for furthering their activism. By shining new light on the emergence of such social entrepreneurship amongst former political exiles, this study seeks to overcome two tendencies in refugee studies, namely to relegate the establishment of a business to a livelihood pursuit, dealing with business largely from an economic standpoint; and to approach activism only from the perspective of direct political engagement. This study integrates these two separate threads and brings the discussion of social entrepreneurship into refugee studies, demonstrating that some businesses established by refugees should be understood as a form of activism. Furthermore, the study demonstrates that the transnational aspects of social entrepreneurship has accelerated inter-Asian connections. Introduction Using the case of Burmese refugees in South Korea, this study seeks to reveal how homeland democratization affects diasporic activism. The democratization in Myanmar that began in 2011 and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) victory in the 2015 general elections stimulated activists to develop a new form of activism—one much different to traditional political public actions such as street demonstrations. This study argues that entrepreneurship has emerged as a form of activism among refugee activists in the face of the political change. By shining new light on the emergence of social entrepreneurship among former political activists, this study attempts to overcome two tendencies in refugee studies: (i) to consider business simply as a mode for pursuing livelihoods and (ii) to characterize activism only as political actions. This study integrates these two separate threads and brings forward the discussion of social entrepreneurship to refugee studies. This study emphasizes how two factors—attaining official, legal refugee status and homeland democratization—influenced a shift in the style of activism amongst Burmese refugees in South Korea. Establishing a business in Korea requires appropriate legal status, barring ‘illegal’ activists from setting up businesses in South Korea. The attainment of legality in Korea, set against a backdrop of homeland democratization, stimulated the refugees to shift from political activism to social entrepreneurship. Accordingly, this study demonstrates how business and activism, as well as homeland and host society, can converge. This article first engages in a theoretical discussion of business and activism, then investigates the intersection of South Korea’s refugee policy development with Burmese activists’ life histories. Next, I discuss the factors that allowed the Burmese activists to establish socially responsible businesses, namely legal refugee status and homeland democratization. Finally, I demonstrate how social entrepreneurship plays out in transnational contexts. I conducted this research from January 2015 to October 2017 via ethnographic participant observation as well as interviews at the refugees’ workplaces and at various cultural and political events, such as Myanmar Union Day celebration and Refugee Day. My research was mostly conducted in the cities of Bucheon and Incheon, where Burmese refugees are concentrated. I also employed focus group interviews in the form of group discussions, particularly regarding how political changes in Myanmar impacted the direction of political movements. In particular, with those refugees who had established businesses, I employed semi-structured interviews and participant observation at their shops to examine the nature of social entrepreneurship that they promoted. Each interview lasted one to two hours. In total, I conducted a range of interviews with 30 refugees. Most interviews were conducted in Korean. Business Beyond Livelihood, Activism Beyond Politics This article argues that much research in refugee studies relegates the establishment of a business to a livelihood pursuit, dealing with business largely from an economic standpoint. Establishing businesses promotes refugees’ self-reliance and even offers potential economic contributions to host societies (Dube and Koenig 2005; Jacobsen 2005; Brees 2008), thus certain states encourage refugee entrepreneurship to boost their economies (Ley 2003; Koizumi 2015: 255). Success stories of refugee entrepreneurs have been analysed in association with the social capital of refugees, amongst other factors (Lerner and Hendeles 1996; Khosravi 1999; Portes and Yiu 2013; Rath and Schutjens 2016). However, existing studies rarely examine the association of refugee businesses with activism. Refugee activism has long been seen in a transnational context—demonstrating that refugees/migrants are agents of political change in their homeland as well as in their host society (Keck and Sikkink 1998; Guarnizo et al. 2003; Miller 2011; Egreteau 2012; Suh 2015). When it comes to the practices and strategies of refugee activism, ‘political’ actions such as street demonstrations, media reports, lobbying, voting and Internet forums have drawn scholars’ attention (Werbner 2002; Aouragh 2012; Datta 2013; Koinova 2013). Few studies consider or examine economic activities as a means of refugee activism. The only form of economic activism that has been studied is remittance (Furuya 2006; Lindley 2009; Sadouni 2009). Other economic activities, notably the establishment of businesses, have been neglected. I attempt to fill this gap by examining the intersection of refugees, business and activism, and subsequently discuss refugee entrepreneurship in the context of social entrepreneurship. I define social entrepreneurship as ‘entrepreneurship activity with an embedded social purpose’ (Austin et al. 2006: 1). This study demonstrates that former Burmese political activists run their businesses for the benefit of less-privileged communities—a credible example that accords with the social entrepreneurship literature (Mair and Marti 2009; Abu-Saifan 2012; Santos 2012). Scholars on social entrepreneurship, largely in the field of management studies have sought to define the topic by focusing on how it differs from conventional or commercial entrepreneurship (Mair and Marti 2006; Hoogendoorn et al. 2010). Few studies highlight turning points or catalysts that may have prompted individuals to become social entrepreneurs. The needs and opportunities that lead to the establishment of businesses have drawn the attention of scholars (Thompson et al. 2000; Gawell 2013), but the type of opportunities that this study examines differs sharply from conventional studies that centre on the domestic market or social niches. This study takes on a transnational perspective that considers conditions in homeland and host societies as one of the factors behind the establishment of social enterprises. In examining the emergence of social entrepreneurship amongst former Burmese political activists in Korea, I highlight two catalytic and converging factors that are neglected in activism studies as well as management studies. The first factor is democratization in the homeland. Prior research has focused on how diasporic activism influences oppressive and undemocratic homeland politics (Datta 2013; Quinsaat 2013). Authoritarian homeland regimes promote diasporic activism; when democratization is achieved, diasporic activism seemingly ends, and so does scholarly attention to such activism. Academic approaches focus entirely on how democratization is achieved but rarely consider how activism persists after democratization. Indeed, democratization in the homeland has a significant impact on the lives of political refugees and their modes of activism, as it invalidates political actions such as street demonstrations. They must consider and develop new forms of activism that fit into ‘democracy after democratization’. It is under these circumstances that social entrepreneurs emerge among former political activists, continuing their activism beyond politics and, at the same time, running businesses. The second factor I identify in relation to the emergence of social entrepreneurship is the attainment of legal recognition of refugee status in the host society, which allowed the refugees to establish their own businesses. Work permits had only allowed work as employees, not business owners, and, furthermore, many activists were ‘illegal’ residents, having overstayed their visas. This illegal status in turn caused them to develop a legal consciousness, recognizing the opportunity to advance their activist cause that legal recognition would provide, as scholars on legal consciousness have discussed (De Genova 2002; Menjívar 2011; Hellgren 2012; Ho and Chua 2016). The attainment of legality redefined the refugees’ subjectivity and rescaled their activism—they took advantage of their new-found rights and benefits, notably by legally establishing businesses, turning their leadership skills and ethnic networks into entrepreneurial resources. My approach on legality differs from what Susan Banki (2006, 2013) observed in the case of Burmese refugees in Japan. Banki argued that legal status did not necessarily expand the transnational activism of political refugees because ‘many legal refugees have refocused their energies on livelihood, rather than political activities’ (2006: 43). Banki seems to regard activism only in a political dimension, not linking refugees’ economic pursuits with activism. Although I agree with her assessment that achieving legal status promotes economic pursuits, I provide a different perspective by demonstrating that this legal status promotes business as a form of activism. When the two factors—democratization in the homeland and attainment of legal status—converge, it drives some political activists to establish businesses that can benefit the community. In this, we can see transformations that steer activism beyond politics, business beyond livelihood. On a broader scale, this study is representative of how Burmese refugees across the world responded to the new political environment in the homeland and how the nexus of politics and legality shapes the life trajectories of refugees in general. Intersecting Histories: South Korea’s Refugee Policies and Burmese Activists This study uses South Korea and Myanmar to highlight an example of inter-Asian connections. South Korea ratified the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Convention and Protocol in 1992, revising the Immigration Control Act (ICT) in 1993 to include provisions on refugees, which then took effect on 1 July 1994 (Kim 2012a: 224) allowing applications for refugee status. However, despite receiving 96 applicants between 1994 and 2000, no refugee status was granted (MOJ 2017). Only after 21 Burmese activists applied in a group in 2000 did the South Korean government begin to implement the refugee legal arrangement. Thus, Burmese activists contributed to the awareness of refugee rights and policy implementation in South Korea (Suh 2015). Between 2001 and 2010, the Korean government revised the ICT three times, improving refugees’ rights each time (see Shin et al. 2012: 28). On 10 February 2012, the government enacted a separate law, the Refugee Act, which added provisions—even for applicants—for living expenses, residential facilities and medical services, and established a refugee resettlement programme (Wolman 2013). The resettlement programme began by bringing 22 refugees in December 2015, followed by 34 in November 2016 and another 30 in July 2017, all from refugee camps at the Thailand–Myanmar border (Chung 2017). In general, the Korean government’s recognition of refugee status centred on Burmese activists over the years, as can be seen in Tables 1 and 2. Table 1 Number of Refugee Status Applicants and Grantees from 1994 to 2016 by Nationality Country of origin No. of refugee status applicants No. of refugee status grantees Recognition rate (%) Myanmar 485 226 46.6 Bangladesh 1,067 96 9.0 Ethiopia 297 81 27.3 Pakistan 3,601 47 1.3 Egypt 2,503 11 0.4 China 2,226 8 0.4 Syria 1,223 4 0.3 Nigeria 1,345 3 0.2 Nepal 1,607 0 0.0 Others 8,438 202 2.4 Total 22,792 678 3.0 Country of origin No. of refugee status applicants No. of refugee status grantees Recognition rate (%) Myanmar 485 226 46.6 Bangladesh 1,067 96 9.0 Ethiopia 297 81 27.3 Pakistan 3,601 47 1.3 Egypt 2,503 11 0.4 China 2,226 8 0.4 Syria 1,223 4 0.3 Nigeria 1,345 3 0.2 Nepal 1,607 0 0.0 Others 8,438 202 2.4 Total 22,792 678 3.0 Source: Ministry of Justice (South Korea) 2017. Table 1 Number of Refugee Status Applicants and Grantees from 1994 to 2016 by Nationality Country of origin No. of refugee status applicants No. of refugee status grantees Recognition rate (%) Myanmar 485 226 46.6 Bangladesh 1,067 96 9.0 Ethiopia 297 81 27.3 Pakistan 3,601 47 1.3 Egypt 2,503 11 0.4 China 2,226 8 0.4 Syria 1,223 4 0.3 Nigeria 1,345 3 0.2 Nepal 1,607 0 0.0 Others 8,438 202 2.4 Total 22,792 678 3.0 Country of origin No. of refugee status applicants No. of refugee status grantees Recognition rate (%) Myanmar 485 226 46.6 Bangladesh 1,067 96 9.0 Ethiopia 297 81 27.3 Pakistan 3,601 47 1.3 Egypt 2,503 11 0.4 China 2,226 8 0.4 Syria 1,223 4 0.3 Nigeria 1,345 3 0.2 Nepal 1,607 0 0.0 Others 8,438 202 2.4 Total 22,792 678 3.0 Source: Ministry of Justice (South Korea) 2017. Table 2 Recognition Rate Trend in Comparison between Myanmar Nationals and Others Year 2006 2008 2010 2012 2014 Myanmar Applicants 12 55 34 32 18 Grantees 6 18 13 18 4 Rate (%) 50.0 32.7 38.2 56.3 22.2 Others Applicants 266 364 423 1,143 2,896 Grantees 5 18 34 42 90 Rate (%) 1.9 5.8 8.7 3.8 3.1 Year 2006 2008 2010 2012 2014 Myanmar Applicants 12 55 34 32 18 Grantees 6 18 13 18 4 Rate (%) 50.0 32.7 38.2 56.3 22.2 Others Applicants 266 364 423 1,143 2,896 Grantees 5 18 34 42 90 Rate (%) 1.9 5.8 8.7 3.8 3.1 Source: Ministry of Justice (South Korea) 2017. Table 2 Recognition Rate Trend in Comparison between Myanmar Nationals and Others Year 2006 2008 2010 2012 2014 Myanmar Applicants 12 55 34 32 18 Grantees 6 18 13 18 4 Rate (%) 50.0 32.7 38.2 56.3 22.2 Others Applicants 266 364 423 1,143 2,896 Grantees 5 18 34 42 90 Rate (%) 1.9 5.8 8.7 3.8 3.1 Year 2006 2008 2010 2012 2014 Myanmar Applicants 12 55 34 32 18 Grantees 6 18 13 18 4 Rate (%) 50.0 32.7 38.2 56.3 22.2 Others Applicants 266 364 423 1,143 2,896 Grantees 5 18 34 42 90 Rate (%) 1.9 5.8 8.7 3.8 3.1 Source: Ministry of Justice (South Korea) 2017. Between 1994 and 2016, only about 3 per cent of applicants, or 678 people, were granted refugee status. However, the figure on the grantees from Myanmar tells a very different story: refugees from Myanmar make up about one-third of the total grantees, and the recognition rate for Burmese applicants is 46.6 per cent—significantly higher than the rate for applicants from any other country. Development of Political Activism This section presents details of the earlier lives of some interviewees, demonstrating their transition from migrant workers to political activists. During this transition, they began to gain a legal consciousness that shaped their political subjectivities (Ho and Chua 2016). However, the interviews suggest that at first their legal consciousness was only concerned with political activism, not yet with economic activism, due to the undemocratic political conditions of their homeland. South Korea introduced the Industrial Trainee System (ITS) in 1993 to bring in foreign labour at a minimum wage for small industries (Kim 2012a: 224). Burmese activists who had participated in anti-military demonstrations began to arrive in South Korea as trainees in 1994 as a means of escape from Myanmar. In 1994 alone, 716 trainees (all male) from Myanmar entered the country under the ITS (Suh 2015: 759); among them were political activists, though the exact number is unknown. An example of such a political activist was Nay Tun Naing, who took part in democratic uprisings as a student leader in 1988 and was subsequently jailed for three months. He managed to acquire a trainee visa and arrived in South Korea in June 1994. Another example, Thura—also a student leader in 1988—arrived in August 1994. Nay Tun Naing worked in an injection moulding factory, while Thura worked in a factory producing flooring and wallpaper at the monthly wage of 180,000 won (roughly 150 USD). Not all activists, however, came as trainees. For example, Maung Zaw managed to come to South Korea on a business visa in October 1994. He worked in an injection moulding factory at a higher wage of 600,000 won (500 USD), but was not paid after six months (Maung Zaw 2014: 232–233). Another interviewee, Soe Moe Thu, came to Korea on a tourist visa in 1995 and worked in a factory that manufactures paper boxes. Early on, all the Burmese activists were busy adapting to the harsh working conditions and discrimination they encountered in South Korea. The time for mobilizing democratic movements was not yet ripe—refugee rights were as strange to them as to the Korean government at that time. As the number of Burmese migrants increased, they began to assemble and organize communities. Nay Tun Naing and other activists formed ‘The Group for Democracy in Burma’ in 1997. This organization subsequently developed into the National League for Democracy-Liberated Area (NLD-LA) Korea branch in February 1999, with 28 members, and was recognized on 4 May in the same year by NLD-LA headquarters (Kim 2012b: 119–120). Meanwhile, most of the Burmese activists gradually became illegal residents either because they had moved out of their ITS-designated factories because they could not tolerate the low wages or they had overstayed their visas. Once the NLD-LA Korea branch was formed, its members engaged in political activities on a regular basis and cooperated with Korean civil society groups, most notably in monthly picketing demonstrations outside the Myanmar Embassy. Although they had become fully fledged activists, they did not at first consider applying for refugee status. They had no inkling of what rights this legality would bring to them (Maung Zaw 2014: 237–238) and instead experienced fear in their everyday lives—an effect of their illegality that the state produces (De Genova 2002; Menjívar 2006). Such conditions in turn led them to gain the legal consciousness necessary to continue their lives in Korea and political activism for the democratization of Myanmar. However, their legal consciousness was nascent (cf. Ho and Chua 2016) and a turning point was required to catalyse their political subjectivities as refugees. In March–May 2000, a series of dramatic events forced them to apply for refugee status, but it also enabled them to promote their political activism in association with this legality. On 9 March 2000, Kyaw Swa Linn, the person in charge of foreign affairs of the NLD-LA Korea, was arrested and detained by the Korean immigration authorities on a charge of illegally overstaying his visa. He was at risk of being deported to Myanmar, where his life would be in grave danger. His arrest provoked strong opposition amongst Korean human rights organizations. Minbyun (Lawyers for a Democratic Society) filed an appeal to the decision and helped him apply to the Ministry of Justice for refugee status. On 17 May, 20 other NLD-LA Korea members, including Nay Tun Naing and Maung Zaw, collectively applied for refugee status so that they too could avoid arrest and deportation (Park 2013; Maung Zaw 2014: 236–238; Suh 2015: 764). The acquisition of legality through refugee status now became their strategy for engaging in diasporic activism, as evidenced elsewhere (Bloch et al. 2011). Legal recognition as refugees was meant to provide political legitimacy to their activism (Kim 2012a: 230), guaranteed their ability to remain in Korea and, furthermore, provided additional opportunities for their livelihoods by, for example, permitting them to establish businesses. This series of the events drew attention to refugee rights for the first time in the eyes of the Korean public and activists. The Korean government, and particularly the Ministry of Justice, also began to respond more significantly to refugee issues. On 29 January 2003, the Korean government made a decision to grant refugee status to three NLD-LA Korea members, including Aung Myint Shwe (chairman), Maung Maung Lwin (vice chairman) and Nay Tun Naing (secretary), but not to others. Those whose applications were rejected filed appeals and disputed the decisions in court. Legal recognition as refugees was meant to provide political legitimacy to their activism (Kim 2012a: 230). That legality also guaranteed their ability to remain in Korea and, furthermore, provided additional opportunities for their livelihoods by, for example, permitting them to establish businesses. Growth of Different Threads of Activism This section demonstrates the development of social activism and its role, not only in homeland democratization, but also in the promotion of migrant rights in the host society. The discussion highlights that refugee activism is deeply embedded in the host state’s civil and political landscape (Miller 2011; Suh 2015), allowing the activists to develop their language skills and cross-cultural networks, both of which would be key resources in their future entrepreneurship, using the example of activist group Burma Action. Burma Action traces its creation to 2003, when Thura, Soe Moe Thu and other Burmese and foreign migrants protested the forced deportation of undocumented migrant workers by staging sit-in demonstrations for three months at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul. Eventually, this group formed the Burmese Migrant Worker’s Group, which was renamed Burma Action on 4 January 2004 (Suh 2015: 761–763). From the beginning, Burma Action group advocated for a range of issues, including the rights of migrant workers in South Korea. As seen in the case of the NLD-LA Korea, nine members of Burma Action applied for refugee status, right after its formation, believing that the legality would at least protect them from being deported and also provide political legitimacy for their activism (Bloch et al. 2011). By that time, refugee status had emerged as a political, as well as practical and legal, tool used by Burmese activists to defend themselves. Often, street demonstrations and other types of campaigns were designed to display and garner support for their applications for refugee status, exhibiting their legal consciousness publicly, which reinforced their self-political subjectivities even before attaining legality. This provides a contrast to that which Ho and Chua (2016) observed of the Burmese Chinese community in Myanmar, who adopted a clandestine and subtler way of constituting their political subjectivities. Ultimately, however, the refugee status applications were rejected by the government, apparently due to the applicants’ advocacy for the rights of migrants in the host country, rather than limiting their activism to democratic movements for the homeland. The Korean government did not consider advocacy for the rights of migrants as a reason to grant refugee status. Their legal status as refugees was not officially recognized until seven years later, following a series of legal disputes in court. The formation of Burma Action heralded another thread of activism. Around the same time as Burma Action was formed, Maung Zaw developed a new form of activism. His focus shifted towards helping Burmese children on the Thailand–Myanmar border in cooperation with Korean volunteers—leading to the establishment of the Assistance Program for Education of Burmese Children. In 2006, he turned to assisting schools inside Myanmar and, in 2008, he began establishing libraries there. He and his Korean collaborators eventually formed Thabyae, an international non-governmental organization (NGO), in 2010. Thus, even before democratization in Myanmar, we observe different methods of activism sprouting in the mid-2000s that attempted to go beyond political activism. However, their activism remained somewhat limited to political activism until they achieved legal refugee status and their homeland embarked on democratization. Burma Action’s interest in migrant rights led to the Migrant Workers Television, established on 18 December 2004 in cooperation with other foreign migrants in South Korea. Due to this medium being presented in Korean, the Burmese activists became more fluent in the language, which later became an asset for their business. They equipped themselves with knowledge on labour laws pertaining to the rights and benefits of migrant workers, and strengthened their capacity to use the host state’s legal arrangements to their advantage (Hellgren 2012). This knowledge became instrumental in helping potential migrants in Myanmar and new migrants in Korea adapt to Korean society. It developed into a cross-cultural trust that would be essential later for running businesses. However, this type of activism did not advance their efforts to be granted official refugee status. Again, the Korean government’s rationale was that the refugee status can only be granted to political activists engaging in homeland democratic efforts, not migrant activists engaging in migrant rights advocacy in the host society. Time and again, their expanded forms of activism did not overcome this legal restriction, though their capacity was ever growing throughout the years. Homeland Democratization This section focuses attention on how political conditions in the homeland impact the life trajectory of diaspora activists. Homeland democratization prompts them to rethink their activism and extend it to a transnational context (Laguerre 2005). Some activists may decide to return and take part in reconstructing the homeland, while others opt to remain in the host country to explore ways of adapting their activism to the new conditions. After the promulgation of Myanmar’s new constitution in 2008, the Burmese military junta proceeded with a General Election on 7 November 2010. The NLD boycotted the election because they perceived that the constitution and election intended to strengthen the position of the military in the name of democracy. The Union Solidarity and Development Party won the election in the absence of the NLD participation. Subsequently, on 4 February 2011, Thein Sein became the first civilian president after 49 years of military rule. Thein Sein began to undertake a massive series of reforms towards liberal democracy (Dukalskis 2017). The first symbolic action was the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in November 2010. The government then pushed forward other reformative measures such as relaxing censorship, enacting anti-corruption laws and advancing the banking system. They amended the law that prevented ex-prisoners from becoming members of political parties and thus had technically prevented the NLD’s participation, allowing the NLD to win a landslide victory—40 out of 45 contested seats—in the by-election on 1 April 2012 (Steinberg 2012). Aung San Suu Kyi herself won a seat and became a parliamentary member. The next General Election, held on 8 November 2015, gave the NLD an overwhelming number of seats, and they took control of the government in March 2016 (Dukalskis 2017). This series of political developments in their homeland impacted Burmese activists in Korea. At first, these activists did not trust the military-backed democratization process, holding particular distrust of the 2008 constitution and 2010 election. They supported the NLD’s boycott of the election and continued to stage street demonstrations outside the Myanmar Embassy to Korea. However, as the sweeping democratic reforms continued to occur, and after the NLD won the by-election, the anti-government spirit of these activists diminished. In fact, the NLD-LA Korea stopped their street campaigns when the NLD decided to participate in the by-election. Existing members were forced to rethink their future plans. When I talked with the members on 1 February 2015, some of them confidently said they would go back to Myanmar regardless of the results of the 2015 election, while some said their future would depend on the results. Indeed, their return to their homeland emerged as a foreseeable option after the NLD’s victory in the 2012 by-election. When Aung San Suu Kyi visited Korea from 28 January to 1 February 2013, the NLD-LA Korea members had a long discussion with her regarding their futures. She told them that, if the NLD won the 2015 election, their hopes for a safe return to their homeland would come true. Furthermore, she noted that their experiences and knowledge would be great assets in the future reconstruction of Myanmar. It is evident that the homeland democratization that began to unfold in 2011 weakened the political spirit and capacity of the NLD-LA Korea branch, driving many to return to their homeland. Indeed, Maung Zaw returned to Myanmar on 4 December 2013. Homeland democratization had significant impacts on the activists, as it prompted them to rethink the direction of their activism (Laguerre 2005). It is in this context that the former activists of Burma Action spearheaded a new direction. Becoming Social Entrepreneurs This section presents the emergence of social entrepreneurship, as steered by the new political and legal conditions in the homeland and the host country. These converging changes transform the mode of activism and the constitution of subjectivities. The establishment of businesses becomes a new form of activism to promote the welfare of communities (Mair and Marti 2009; Abu-Saifan 2012). Activists-turned-entrepreneurs embody and practise their values in their businesses. After a long series of legal disputes in court, Thura, Soe Moe Thu and other members of Burma Action acquired refugee status by April 2011. Simultaneously, Myanmar experienced a massive series of democratic reforms. The new-found legal status of the activists in South Korea, and coinciding democratization in Myanmar, enabled them to utilize all the skills they had developed. A grantee of refugee status is entitled to a series of social benefits and rights equal to those of Korean citizens, including establishing businesses and travelling overseas. This change in legal status thus made it possible for the Burmese activists to establish businesses to achieve social agendas. To this end, they eventually established a corporation named Padauk Glory on 7 July 2013, in Bupyeong, Incheon. Occupying a two-story building, the company’s mobile-phone shop is located on the first story with a café and restaurant on the second story. To start the company, 15 people had saved 300,000 won (250 USD) every month since 2011. Although the company was registered as an ordinary corporation in the district office, it was intended to run in the spirit of a cooperative and serve the community in general, which fulfils the criteria of social entrepreneurship (Mair and Marti 2006: 38). Indeed, in casual conversations with me, Thura at times referred to Padauk Glory as a cooperative. The company diversified its business to include a mobile-phone shop, travel agency, money exchange, mini-store, restaurant, export of second-hand vehicles, logistics and trading between Korea and Myanmar. When I visited the mobile-phone shop in February 2015 to meet Thura, I was impressed by its elegant decor and displays that were comparable to any other Korean mobile-phone shop. The registration certificate of the corporation, proving their legitimacy, hung proudly on the wall. As Hellgren (2012: 2) observes, this lawful label ‘acts practically and symbolically upon’ former activists’ lives. Interestingly, photos of Aung San and Aung San Suu Kyi hung on the wall next to the company’s logo and plate, clearly demonstrating their political stances. Initially, Soe Moe Thu, as managing director, became a full-time shopkeeper, dealing with customers and providing telephone consultation, while Thura—also a managing director—was mainly in charge of the travel business. The shop displayed not only mobile phones, but also Korean ginseng gift sets and cosmetics. A panel for money exchange was placed in the middle of the service counter. Korean customers also visited this shop, consulting about mobile phones and subscribing to mobile-phone services. The ability of the Burmese activists to speak Korean, which they had acquired during their struggle for the rights of migrants, enabled Thura and Soe Moe Thu to deal with various bureaucratic processes when registering, establishing and operating the company. They were familiar with corporate law and able to deal with any legal matters, including tax payment. Thura described to me, in fluent Korean, the diverse types of mobile-phone subscriptions available and recommended a suitable type of phone for me. The success of this business demonstrates clearly that immigrant entrepreneurship can be integrated positively into the economy of host society (Rath and Schutjens 2016). Their purpose for the business was clear from the outset, Thura convincingly stressed to me in December 2015: The company was established by Burmese activists, who had been devoted to democracy in Myanmar and human rights of migrants, in the spirit of a cooperative and therefore will use part of its profit in promoting the welfare of the Myanmar society and advancing the human rights of migrants. The running of the company is not for personal gain but for a public purpose. Indeed, the company continues to abide by this purpose. Padauk Glory, since its establishment, has donated 200,000–300,000 won (167–250 USD) every month to the Burmese community in Korea and Myanmar. The company’s Facebook page often carries information about its donations to the community. When I met Soe Moe Thu in October 2017, he told me that the company had recently donated money to people in Rakhine State in Myanmar who were suffering from communal clashes, and he showed me related posts and photos on the Facebook page. The company has also taken the lead in mobilizing donations among the Burmese community in Korea. Soe Moe Thu does not take fees for his consultations on legal issues such as industrial-accident compensation, overdue wages and severance pay, and encourages his customers to donate via a box placed at the counter. Once a substantial amount of money is collected, he sends it to people in need. I saw, on that day, several bags of coins in his office that would soon be sent to an education-focused NGO in Yangon, Myanmar. To serve the community through the company, it is imperative that the business succeeds and creates sufficient profits—essentially, the business’s success is now interpreted as the success of the activism. Thura also appreciated the importance of money in sustaining family life, stating: In the past, political activists sacrificed and forced families to fall into miserable conditions. Although it is important for activists to devote themselves to the country and others, the suffering of their families must not be disregarded. This in turn influences them so badly that they cannot carry on their activism. Activists need fuel in supporting their families that are most precious in whatever condition. This company intends to provide fuel for them and their families. Indeed, even before this type of business began, Burmese activists in Korea typically remitted money to their colleagues inside Myanmar and on the Thailand–Myanmar border, as often happens in such cases (e.g. Sadouni 2009). However, it was burdensome for them to remit money because, as migrant workers, they struggled to survive on insufficient wages. Now, the company has developed a regular profit-making system whereby they can offer monetary support to their colleagues and families in a more sustainable way. Soe Moe Thu revealed to me that sales had been on the rise since Padauk Glory was established, expanding onto the first floor in 2016. There, it opened a retail shop named Asia Mart, selling items such as groceries from Myanmar and Thailand. In 2017, the company established a guesthouse near the shop that provides accommodation and subsistence at 170,000 won (142 USD) per month. The guesthouse is reserved for those seeking employment and introduces guests to job opportunities. The expense of running the corporation has increased as the business expanded. For instance, as of 2017, the monthly rent for the first floor costs 1,400,000 won (1,167 USD). However, according to Soe Moe Thu, the company makes a profit of several million won (several thousand USD) per month. A profit-making system has been stabilized throughout years and thus regular donation has become possible. Soe Moe Thu no longer needs to man the counter at all times, unlike when I saw him in 2015; he now hires full-time Burmese employees. He makes use of his freedom to plan future corporate strategies, mobilize donations and plan community activities. Since democratization of their homeland, Burmese migrants now tend to mobilize with the intention of promoting individual and civic virtues; indeed, Padauk Glory aims to fulfil this purpose. Thura mentioned in February 2015: I think that the quality of individual lives is also important. Without it, the quality of social lives becomes incomplete. Without it, we lack energy to work for a better society. Individuals are the basis of society. Individuals can be mobilized into conscious citizens who can reform society. I have worked to help individuals navigate their own life. The current company runs under the principle that puts emphasis on individuals and grass-roots mobilization. Similarly, this was also a founding principle of the Myanmar Center, a voluntary organization aiming to help Burmese migrants adjust to Korean society, replacing Burma Action and launched in October 2012. Thura and Soe Moe Thu thought that Burma Action had been too political for ordinary Burmese migrants to join and thus formed a new organization that caters more to the everyday needs of people such as legal consultation, language improvement and media use, and fosters civic movements. The centre runs various programmes such as Korean classes, labour and human rights and media education on the weekends. As time went by, the centre drew more participants and became more volunteer-run, no longer completely relying on the contribution of Thura and Soe Moe Thu. The activities of the centre do contribute to the company because Burmese migrants who take part in the centre programmes naturally become the company’s customers. Ethnic networks that the centre mobilizes are important social capital that increases the company’s profits, as existing studies of social capital show (e.g. Khosravi 1999). The people in these ethnic networks buy air tickets, subscribe to mobile-phone services, use logistics services and join tour programmes, all via the company. The trust that Thura and Soe Moe Thu have built up since the early days when they were migrant activists is an important consideration for Burmese customers when making contractual decisions. In particular, the company’s donations to the community and various free consultations on labour issues contribute to trust-building. Padauk Glory appreciates the importance of trust in doing business and is committed to customer satisfaction. Soe Moe Thu described this in October 2017: In the past, I worked for the rights of Burmese migrants as an activist. Now I have to help and provide them with good services including consultations on labour issues because they are my customers. If I provide good services, it is good for the image of my company. It has become part of my business to solve various problems they face in their workplaces. Thus, migrants come to Padauk Glory to make purchases, but they also seek consultations for problems that they face at their workplaces. Gradually, the company became popular throughout the Burmese communities in South Korea and even within Myanmar. Those from Myanmar preparing to come to Korea as tourists or workers would contact the company for consultations regarding their future life and work in Korea and to purchase air tickets. Some people in Myanmar even ask the company to find relatives with whom they have lost contact. In this, the social network services, such as the Facebook and Cacao Talk, are important media for facilitating the marketing and social activities of the company. This demonstrates the expansion of Internet usage beyond political purpose that conventional research in diaspora activism describes (Datta 2013). Thura, jokingly but confidently, said to me: ‘If you are using our network, you would be able to find out about anyone, whether he/she is illegal, within ten minutes.’ The development of networks and skills has steered former activists to reshape their subjectivities more towards becoming businessmen. It raises a possibility of them becoming full-scale entrepreneurs. Thura approached the issue by saying: It is important to carry on this type of activism with a strong determination. However, people’s lives can change. At this moment, I do not worry about that kind of situation. Some people can become full-scale entrepreneurs in the future. I would give a big round of applause to them. For Myanmar to develop, there must be people like them, entrepreneurs conscious of society, not like Chaebols [large industrial conglomerates controlled by an owner or family, and who are sometimes criticized for their biased dividend payouts and/or corruption]. I do not think that becoming a full-scale entrepreneur is bad. I appreciate their role in society. This statement demonstrates that business itself does not carry a negative connotation, as it is seen to have its own validity in the reconstruction of Myanmar. Soe Moe Thu himself also strives to be a good entrepreneur and not a capitalist who exploits labour. The new political circumstances in Myanmar steers them to take such a positive stance to entrepreneurship. Towards Transnational Social Entrepreneurs This section demonstrates that refugees’ entrepreneurship builds upon their previous diasporic activism, resulting in their building businesses with a social purpose that is not confined to the host society, but also extends to the homeland (Portes and Yiu 2013). They pursue social entrepreneurship in this transnational scalar framing. The victory of the NLD in the 2015 General Election prompted many former activists to return to Myanmar. Thura eventually returned to the homeland in March 2016, liquidating his share in Padauk Glory. However, he soon started a new business in Myanmar in 50 per cent partnership with Padauk Glory, establishing a Korean language institute in Yangon. Thura’s excellent knowledge of the language, culture and society of Korea has brought significant profit to him in Myanmar. Additionally, he sells second-hand vehicles imported from Korea. His connections and relationships with Korean partners, built while working in Padauk Glory, have become important resources in this business too. Customers in Myanmar trust Thura due to his previous activism in South Korea. Indeed, the vehicles posted on Thura’s Facebook page are very popular and are sold even before their arrival in Yangon. Thura has also been engaging in community activities, such as running a youth centre in Yangon in conjunction with some activists. Thura has worked to improve the library facility of the centre and train young people to become future civil society leaders. Korean NGOs and Padauk Glory sometimes give financial and material support to this cause. He is also attempting to expand his activism to other regions of Myanmar by creating a youth centre modelled on the one in Yangon. Despite his return to Myanmar, he continues to play a double role as businessman and activist—that is, as a social entrepreneur in the transnational context, drawing on his connections in Korea. Padauk Glory has also established a tour company named Myanmar Myat Cherry Travels and Tours in Yangon. Soe Moe Thu is in charge of overseeing this business in Korea and Myanmar. Whilst, at times, he visits Myanmar for business and to engage with the community there, unlike Thura, he continues to reside in Korea. When I questioned him in October 2017 regarding a permanent return to Myanmar, Soe Moe Thu answered: My role is different from Thura’s. I would continue to stay here and play a role in mediating between Korea and Myanmar while at times visiting there. Recently the governor of Bago, Myanmar visited Korea and asked me to introduce him to Korean companies. This is exactly what I have to do here, bridging the two countries. I would love to take up the role. His future business plan also reflects transnational transfer of knowledge and technology from the host country to the homeland (Portes and Yiu 2013). He continued: My dream is to launch a search engine in Myanmar. I got much help from search engines like Google and Naver when I gave consultations on labour laws for my customers. How good it would be if Myanmar had such a search engine. I will mobilize funds for this project that could also improve educational conditions. I have already met and discussed with Korean technicians on this matter and will persuade political leaders in Myanmar to adopt the good parts of Korea. This statement demonstrates how Soe Moe Thu attempts to create social value that would benefit society in general—an attribute that distinguishes social entrepreneurship (Santos 2012: 337). It also demonstrates that the creation of social value is deeply associated with transnational networks. Conclusion This study examined the conditions leading to the change in political subjectivities of Burmese refugees in South Korea as they evolved from political activists to become social entrepreneurs, embodying and practising social value in their businesses. This transition required a convergence between business and activism. The study singled out two factors behind this convergence: homeland democratization and the acquisition of legality in the host country. This study revealed historical intersections between South Korea and Burmese activists, each of which was deeply associated with political and economic conditions in South Korea and Myanmar. The study broadens our understanding of Burmese refugees in general, scattered across Asia and other regions, who have reshaped their lives and activism to reflect the reconstruction of their homeland’s political economy. Furthermore, the study provides an understanding of the structural contexts that steer the reconstitution of the refugees’ subjectivities and agencies. The study considered the case of Burmese activists who escaped from homeland dictatorship by migrating to become part of the South Korean economy that faced a shortage of manual labourers in the early 1990s. This economic convergence influenced the political interface between the two sides, centring on refugee issues in the 2000s. Ironically, Burmese activists’ struggle for homeland democratization stimulated the development of the Korean government’s refugee policies. The acquisition of legal refugee status became an important means through which the activists could protect themselves and legitimize their political activism. Against the production of (il)legality by the state (De Genova 2002), they developed legal consciousness and appropriated legality to reshape their political subjectivities, develop spatial strategies and expand their political spaces (Ho and Chua 2016). Eventually, when the convergence between homeland democratization and the acquisition of legality that allowed the establishment of businesses took place in the early 2010s, it led to the rise of entrepreneurship with an embedded social purpose. Padauk Glory, the main case study of this research, highlights the emergence of social entrepreneurship and the reconstitution of subjectivity and activism in this interface. Profits provide the ability to sustain the lives of business-activists’ colleagues and families, and the ability to nurture civil society. In sum, this case study demonstrated the importance of examining refugee businesses as a social force, not merely personal livelihood pursuits—a perspective that contributes to expanding current perspectives in literature on the establishment of businesses by refugees (Dube and Koenig 2005; Jacobsen 2005; Brees 2008; Bagwell 2015). It examined the intersection of refugees, business and activism by bringing social entrepreneurship into the discussion (Mair and Marti 2009; Abu-Saifan 2012; Santos 2012) and exemplified the importance of looking beyond explicitly political actions when it comes to diasporic activism. A focus on the emergence of social entrepreneurship will enrich our understanding of refugee activism (Keck and Sikkink 1998; Guarnizo et al. 2003) to allow the reconstitution of activism following homeland democratization. The transnational aspects of social entrepreneurship have accelerated inter-Asian connections and will likely continue to do so in the future. 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Journal of Refugee Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 6, 2018
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