4 Minutes To Read

Forging Resilience Amidst Conflict: Climate Advocacy in Myanmar

4 Minutes To Read
  • English
  • May Ying (pseudonym) explores unique challenges in building climate advocacy in conflict-torn Myanmar.

    Photo credit: Delta News Agency

    As the 28th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) came to an end in December 2023, it became clear that most of the event’s agenda and most of the funding commitments arrived at had been swayed by the priorities of governments in the Global North. While the countries most affected by climate change are poor developing nations, little attention has been paid to them on the global climate agenda.

    More importantly, countries undergoing a dual crisis – active conflicts and climate change – have received little attention in global discussions and the allocation of funds through international frameworks. This article briefly explains how addressing the climate crisis in conflict-affected and oppressive states has unique challenges, using Myanmar as an example. It also discusses how the global climate agenda should adapt its funding and programs to the realities of conflict-affected and oppressive states.

    The crackdown on environment defenders and activists in Myanmar

    Armed conflict has been fought in Myanmar since the mid-20th century, accompanied by a crackdown against dissidents. Even before the 2021 coup, indigenous environmental activists were killed by the military while others faced legal charges brought by the then-semi-democratic government.

    The post-2021 junta has shrunk the civic space for environmental activists and defenders even more. Arrests, security checkpoints, and extensive crackdowns on the activist community have forced environmental activists and defenders into hiding. A report published by the All Burma Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance (ABIPA) in July 2023 outlined mounting challenges faced by Myanmar’s environmental defenders in the aftermath of the coup, including a widespread network of checkpoints and surveillance, legal charges, and arrests, torture, and interrogation. While the regime’s crackdown affects the broader activist community, as of April 2022, observers of Myanmar’s environment indicated that at least 18 environmental activists had been arrested by the military since the coup.

    Unchecked resource extraction after the military’s takeover

    Throughout the semi-democratic period from 2010-2020, Myanmar’s environmental activism gained momentum. A prominent case is the Myitsone hydroelectric project, a US$3.6 billion project jointly constructed by the China state-owned China Power Investment Corporation and Myanmar’s controversial company Asia World Company, which is closely affiliated with drugs and money laundering. Locals of the Myitsone dam area in conflict-affected Kachin State had been calling to halt the dam project since 2007. However, in early 2011, the dam project inspired strategic and coordinated environmental activism that involved a wide array of protests involving the public, civic activists, environmentalists, and civil society organizations, who took advantage of the decreased restrictions on the media at the time. The Myitsone dam was eventually suspended in September 2011 by the Thein Sein government.

    During the semi-democratic period, climate activists also drew inspiration from the global climate movement, as evident in the climate strike march in Yangon in 2019. Before the 2021 coup, climate activism, especially amongst the young people, had given to localized grassroots movements, campaigns and public awareness activities, demanding corporate accountability and more robust government policies. One decade of political and economic transformation, despite the military taking a leading role in politics, had brought substantive improvements in mitigating climate crisis, in particular developing policies around natural resource governance and extraction. In 2014, Myanmar became a member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international group advocating transparency and accountability in the natural resource and extractive sector. However, Myanmar’s EITI membership was subsequently suspended after the 2021 coup.

    The military coup and the subsequent conflict and chaos dismantled not only the environmental policy landscape but also deteriorated Myanmar’s environment itself. In 2023, rare earth mining in Kachin State reached a record high. In the first seven months of 2023, the value of Myanmar’s rare earth exports to China amounted to approximately US$890 million, according to a local think tank, the Institute for Strategy and Policy – Myanmar. While the junta’s oppressive tactics against environmental activists make it difficult for them to hold mining operators accountable, different armed actors in the Kachin State, including the junta-aligned forces, enjoy multifaceted financial benefits from the illegal operation of rare earth mining.

    Approximately 42% of Myanmar’s land is still covered by forest, most of which is in ethnic minority areas, which have endured up to six decades of conflict. These remaining forests have become even more vulnerable since the coup, which exacerbated to illegal logging in forests once designated as protected areas. With both the Myanmar military and some resistance armed groups benefiting from illegal logging, illegal smuggling and deforestation will be more rampant in Myanmar’s protected forests, particularly in areas with active conflicts.

    International attention is lacking

    The current state of climate crisis in Myanmar has been overlooked in the international climate agenda, including discussions about how to allocate grants. Many local grassroots organizations active in the country are struggling to fund their work, given the challenges in regulatory restrictions, funding application complexities and financial transactions. Several grassroots and indigenous organizations are under heavy scrutiny by the junta. The junta’s recent changes in legal and regulations, which have affected the anti-terrorism law, electronic transactions law, association registration law and legal aid law, have put extreme limitations on the grassroots organizations and activists working on the climate crisis and protecting their ancestral land.

    Researchers have advocated for international aid programs to be more flexible in their compliance process for the local grassroots environmental organizations and indigenous groups in Myanmar. While the climate crisis has recently received more attention worldwide and attracted millions of dollars from the public and private sectors, much of this funding is still invested and distributed in the Global North. Particularly, in countries like Myanmar where conflict and climate crisis coexist, the climate crisis has either been deprioritized or intentionally excluded from the global agenda. To mitigate the climate crisis and protect vulnerable populations and indigenous communities, global discussions need to include countries where climate and conflict crises coexist.

    The road ahead at COP29

    Azerbaijan will host the COP29 in November 2024. As Azerbaijan itself was recently under active conflict, and the situation remains fragile even after the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire last year, one hopes that it will bring the dual crises faced by conflict-affected countries into discussions at the summit, amplifying the need for special arrangements for conflict-affected communities facing the climate catastrophe, as well as promoting more flexible support from the global climate funders.

    Born and raised in Myanmar, May Ying (pseudonym) is an independent researcher. Her research interests lie in the broader field of economic development and political economy in fragile and conflict-affected settings. She actively supports building resilience in conflict-affected areas, including education, healthcare, and social services to vulnerable communities in Myanmar and its border regions.

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