This gradual decline of the environment - with disastrous consequences for the region including northeastern India and Bangladesh - cannot be arrested without the cooperation of the military rulers who are neck-deep in corruption and self-aggrandizement.
The February 2021 military coup has not done anything better for an already war-ravaged, disaster-prone country at the edge of South Asia battling climate change vulnerabilities for years. Myanmar’s politics is as muddled as its environment. Not that it matters to the junta. After taking up power in a newly formed government of authoritarianism and repression amidst the Covid-19 crisis, the military junta has bolstered its efforts at overexploitation of natural resources at an alarming pace.
Peace is a far cry in a country that has seen near about 50 years of military rule and its stake in democracy has been failed attempts that could not fulfill desired objectives. The post-colonial legacy and framing of the Constitution after 2008 did not reflect efforts to bring women to the centre of decision-making. The Global Climate Risk Index of 2020 shows Myanmar as one of the top three countries most affected by weather-related loss between 1998 and 2018. (‘Myanmar’s Climate Crisis: Damaging Policies Need Reversal’, Aung Tun, 27th December 2021. URL: https://fulcrum.sg/myanmars-climate-crisis-damaging-policies-need-reversal/)
The biodiversity and natural reserves of Myanmar have been affected by frequent spate of intense catastrophes like floods, droughts and landslides damaging the infrastructure and the economy of the country excessively. Mitigating such threats would have needed increased resilience and comprehensive planning, especially taking along all ethnic groups of Myanmar who are stakeholders in protecting the country’s flora and fauna.
However, the military rulers of Myanmar, being power-hungry and authoritarian, are making matters worse for the population by indulging in reckless land seizures, unlawful extraction of resources and corrupt practices like the encouragement of uncontrolled mining and logging. At various stages of military rule, there has been overexploitation of resource-rich areas. Despite Western (read US) strictures, under China’s liberal backing and indulgence, the military rulers after regaining a foothold in 2021 have gone on a rampage with its environmental devastation. It has obliterated forests, destroyed waterways and mountains and irreparably poisoned rivers.
Not only this, the military halted and postponed many environmental projects. For instance, Patrick Arnold, founder and CEO of 10 Billion Strong, an organization training environmental leaders, said an accelerator they ran in 2020 was successful and they had big plans for Myanmar in 2021 but that is on hold. (‘UN suspends climate work with Myanmar government following military coup’, 3rd March 2021. URL: https://www.climatechangenews.com/2021/03/03/un-suspends-climate-work-myanmar-government-following-military-coup/). Myanmar’s military regime has cancelled tenders and blacklisted companies for flouting regulations of previous civilian rule after coming to power in 2021. The businessmen are at high risk and feel vulnerable under the present rulers.
Climate dangers growing
The military in May 2021 launched its own solar power tender but due to lack of bidders was forced to extend the deadline. Myanmar is missing out on opportunities for climate finance due to investment risks. Vicky Bowman, director of Yangon-based Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business and former British ambassador to Myanmar said, “There are good investable projects in Myanmar which would build climate resilience such as natural reforestation and renewable energy projects. But development partners seem frozen since the coup, and private sector investors now view Myanmar as high risk and look to alternatives in Southeast Asia, even though climate investments there may have as many problems in practice as Myanmar.” (“Climate danger grows in ‘vulnerable’ Myanmar after military coup,” John Liu, Rory Wallace, 1st Dec, 2021. URL: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/12/1/myanmar-climate)
As it bears the history of conflict economy it’s not easy to do business in Myanmar and with pressures from the military junta to toe its line, investments are whittling down and businesses are few and far between. With rising deforestation and unbridled cutting down of trees, there is massive environmental devastation putting future generations at climate risk. The rising prices of essential commodities and few incentives for farmers have weakened the economy. Internationally too. Myanmar is isolated with no invitation from COP26 Summit at Glasgow. The military is after easy cash that comes from the business of jade found in abundance here and hydropower and palm oil plantations. Myanmar junta needs cash for arms purchases and they can go to any extent to realize their purpose.
What is beyond explanation is the condition of environmental defenders. Many environmental activists left the country and some are under severe trauma. Many have been arrested or have gone into hiding. Environmental and democracy activist Kyaw Minn Htut became a political prisoner in the hands of the present regime under alleged false charges of terrorism. This follows the arrest of another environment and land rights defender Man Zar Myay Mon who was subjected to judicial torture at the command of the Tatmadaw (the Burmese word for the military). He has been working for mining legislation to stop illegal mining.
What does the future hold
Between 2000 and 2019, over 7000 people have died annually in Myanmar in climate catastrophes. (‘Tackling Climate Change after the Coup’, Jaume Marques Colom, 14th March 2021. URL: https://www.rosalux.de/en/news/id/46138/tackling-climate-change-after-the-coup). This gradual decline of the environment - with disastrous consequences for the region including northeastern India and Bangladesh - cannot be arrested without the cooperation of the military rulers who are neck-deep in corruption and self-aggrandizement.
The people of Myanmar are aware of the deepening environmental crisis but are helpless. Civil society is resisting what they can but it is not enough. Climate resilience demands justice, accountability, governance and, above all. peace. But peace is a hard-earned value that also needs proper policy planning and implementation.
(The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Jangipur College, Kalyani University, West Bengal. Views are personal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)