Nachricht | Southeast Asia - Socio-ecological Transformation - Climate Justice Tackling Climate Change after the Coup

Environmental activists in Myanmar are regrouping and rethinking in the face of widespread state repression


In the year since the coup d’état in Myanmar on 1 February 2021, the country has experienced a wave of violence, deeply wounding the country’s young democracy. Not only does the conflict have profound political, social, and health impacts, but its environmental consequences are also not to be underestimated.

Jaume Marquès Colom is a freelance consultant on climate change and development in the sectors of sustainability, circular economy, and climate change in Southeast Asia.

People living in conflict-affected parts of Myanmar are more vulnerable to climate-related impacts and extreme events, and have fewer resources to respond, mitigate, or recover from those impacts. Myanmar is one of the most-affected countries by climate change, with more than 7,000 fatalities per year between 2000 to 2019 due to natural hazards such as Cyclone Nargis in May 2008. Back then, the same military government failed to warn the population or provide adequate support to victims. Over 84,000 people died, and the military government failed to provide support for the more than 1.5 million affected people.

With the opening of the country in 2011 after nearly 26 years under military rule, the population of Myanmar started becoming more aware of environmental impacts and climate hazards in the country. Environmentalism blossomed alongside economic growth — that is, until the coup d’état threatened to destroy all the progress made by environmentalists. Now, the public looks on as the military junta profiteers from Myanmar’s abundant natural resources. It remains to be seen whether the military will fail once again to react to the catastrophic natural, weather, and climate disasters that are increasing due to climate change.

After the military coup, many projects in the renewable energy sector were halted or postponed. The coup deterred many potential investments which could have built climate change resilience.

For this article, I spoke with nine environmental professionals, activists, and key representatives of organizations in the environmental sector in order to get their thoughts on the situation. They were active in the fields of environmental and human impacts reporting, advisory services, and consulting for public and private sector on environmental, climate, water, and urban infrastructure, to plastic and waste management and organic farming.

Consequences of the Coup

The military junta in Myanmar staged a coup d’état in February 2021 that led to drastic changes for individuals, organizations, and the private sector, which was already suffering from economic losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The environmental sector was not spared. Due to the pandemic and lack of accountability from the self-proclaimed “government”, environmental pollution and medical waste increased alarmingly.

Existing organizations halted their already restricted environmental activities due to the uncertainty and potential impacts on their work. Many faced additional, significant economic losses after the coup due to the complete halt to their activities. Many stopped working due to the post-traumatic stress. Most people moved to their hometowns while most remaining international staff left Myanmar. Foreign embassies advised their citizens to suspend business activities.

Most of the interviewed organizations reduced their visibility and social media presence to diminish the risk of being targeted by the junta. By December 2021, a few organizations had begun to raise awareness on environmental topics, albeit not at the level before the coup.

Some organizations redesigned their core projects but retained the nature of their activities. Others decided to change their approach and focus, i.e., from organic farming or recycling to online training and awareness-raising around climate change. Others started educational programmes to fill the educational gap created by the pandemic and exacerbated by the coup d’état. Many NGOs witnessed how international donor organizations reoriented their focus to youth, education, and vulnerable people, leading to reduced funds for environmental activities.

Environmental Activism under Duress

The coup changed the dynamics of environmental activism in Myanmar. Key environmental activists left the country, were arrested, or went into hiding. Environmental projects and online campaigns are less and less visible. A representative from a social enterprise remarked that “all the incredible energy that existed was really whittled down”.

An environmental activist described the guilt some felt for engaging in environmental activities while people were dying on the streets, suffering from violence or hunger. She recently joined an initiative to plant a tree per victim of the military junta to create “victory forest” that will serve as a memorial to future generations.

The current situation presents an ethical test to active local organizations concerning the long-term impacts, reputational risks, and security risks of their operations. Many local and international organizations remain active in Myanmar but generally keep a low profile. Some local NGOs even changed their names and activities. Those organizations that reinvented themselves could do quite well because they decided to stay. They changed their business model, but did not exit the market.

Now, local organizations are engaged in grassroots work, whereas international NGOs are involved in a number of environmental projects. Some argue that international NGOs will keep the environment and climate in mind when planning their programmes, whereas local NGOs had to reinvent themselves and place less priority on environmental issues — generally seen as a cost and risk for short-term economic survival. Other local NGOs reinvented or adjusted their business model to the current situation by engaging in humanitarian aid.

Engaging with the Public Sector

All interviewees I spoke with ceased contact and engagement with the government — now the military junta — irrespective of their engagement before the coup. It is simply too dangerous for local organizations to work with or confront any public organization with potential ties to the junta.

Those contacted by the self-proclaimed “government” pursue a strategy of politely declining any offer and suggesting alternative solutions. Those organizations previously involved with the government strive to keep their projects alive with other partners and communities where possible.

Projects with public participation require the approval of local authorities and community leaders, many of which are now arrested or cannot cooperate with local organizations due to the dangers of exposing themselves. Community leaders were replaced by the military junta, leaving the organizations in a moral dilemma of whether or not to engage with local communities. Community-level initiatives dramatically decreased due to the lack of community leadership and corruption, which led many already-existing initiatives to fail. This, in turn, translates into a severe economic and development loss to rural and suburban Myanmar.

Currently, there are two environmental ministries in the country: the former ministry, now taken over by the military junta, and the new ministry under the newly established National Union Government (NUG) formed by former members of the government. At the national level, a significant number of civil servants of the Ministry of National Resources and Environmental Conservation (MONREC), its Forest Department (FD), and the Environmental Conservation Department (ECD) were let go due to their involvement in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM),[1] or simply because they did not position themselves clearly against it. The NUG, which established a new ECD, mostly engages with the public through social media — mainly via Facebook.

A Lack of Trust and Access

Organizations and local companies are very cautious and the public does not trust the junta. People are now cautious towards businesses affiliated with the government, as their focus has shifted towards the private sector and local communities. Moreover, organizations do not know if they can trust their peers.

This situation of mistrust has created difficulties for environmental organizations in determining whether organizations are still functioning, whether they changed their business model, and how they did it. There are even studies being undertaken to understand the current environmental and sustainability context in Myanmar. Engaging with other organizations render them vulnerable and may endanger their security. All in all, organizations only engage with peers they fully trust. Now, the organizations are cautiously rebuilding trust in their networks, and trying to build transparent and secure communication channels.

The military junta also requires the registration of all activities on the part of organizations and private businesses. Should they fail to report their activities, they could see their licenses revoked. Non-registered organizations refrain from registering as they must provide information which they fear could be passed onto the junta itself.

Local environmental organizations and companies face the challenge of access to international finance. It is more difficult to implement environmental activities due to the restrictions on financial transactions in and outside of Myanmar.

Firstly, donors have not only cut their financial support to organizations working for environmental protection, but they also switched their focus to support humanitarian activities. Secondly, online payments stopped, and bank transfers are restricted. Some organizations faced severe limitations to cash withdrawal — with fees of up to 200,000 kyat (112 US dollars) per withdrawal.

No Clear Legal Framework and Chaos on the Markets

Prior commitments to engage in environmental and social governance issues, implement Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) systems, or establish a legal environmental framework as developed during the 2010s[2] no longer play a role for the state in Myanmar. The country exhibits a distinct lack of legal enforcement and accountability mechanisms, exacerbated by widespread conflict. Without public participation, environmental assessments of major projects cannot be performed and are seen as “far too dangerous”, according to one environmental expert I spoke with. A lot of investors expressed fears of investing in Myanmar.

Discussions have been held about resuming projects that were rejected or suspended in the past due to environmental or social hazard. The major projects supported by the military junta are regarded as illegal and are not open to public participation, such as the so-called “megaprojects” that have disastrous impacts on the environment and people living in tribal regions. Online EIA consultation is not effective nor meaningful, because detailed information on the projects’ location, geography, people affected, and their lifestyle and livelihood are required.

The absence of environmental monitoring systems fosters the exploitation of natural resources. The junta continues escalating its environmental destruction, resource depletion, and deforestation practices. One local sustainability company told me that “some people became billionaires by selling the forest for exploitation purposes”.

The NUG continues to denounce the military’s illegal deforestation: “environmental activists and analysts fear that the military will scale up logging, the teak trade, palm oil plantations and the exploitation of natural resources, such as jade, which supported the long-term survival of previous military regimes even under international sanctions”. According to a local sustainability company, illegal mining and logging are increasing. In many states, illegal coal mining is happening 24 hours per day. The NUG asks the public not to buy any raw materials that are obtained unethically.

Since the coup, Myanmar has also experienced an increase in prices, especially for everyday products. This increase in prices has left farmers in debt traps, the organic farming market was destroyed, and farming slowed down due to the low demand for vegetables — which were regarded as secondary to rice. With staggeringly high prices on seeds and fertilizers and conflicts being waged over agricultural land, some environmental activists promoted self-sufficient and organic farming to prevent a drop in the vegetable price. Farming and livelihoods have been disrupted, particularly when freedom of movement is restricted and key assets are destroyed, including personal belongings, critical infrastructure, and environmental services.

Plastic prices also increased due to Myanmar’s abrupt exit from international markets. Local business owners now use less plastic to reduce their operating costs. Concerning plastic pollution, one environmental activist told me “I met five vendors who thanked me for not taking plastic because it really reduces the cost — before, they didn’t really care.” Bamboo-threaded boxes, typically used in villages or as souvenirs for tourists, are becoming more popular. Not buying single-use products reduced not only the owners’ costs and plastic pollution, but also served to support local production.

What Does the Future Hold?

The people I spoke with had mixed views on the prospects for environmentalism in Myanmar. “No one really knows the outlook of environmental activism in Myanmar”, a representative of one social enterprise told me. The environmental situation in Myanmar is disheartening, with the future seeming to hold more environmental destruction and exploitation. Many interviewees expressed concern about the environmental repercussions of the coup.

The environment is not the top priority of the public — security, health, and political concerns are simply more urgent to the Myanmar population. The public is aware of the environmental crimes committed by the military junta, but they remain helpless and unable to act. One environmental expert described the junta as a “criminal enterprise and a parasite” to their own country. The lack of governance, accountability, and enforcement of environmental protection will have medium- to long-term impacts on the population. Environmental protection and governance are interlinked, but environmental impacts are more tangible because they can severely affect peoples’ safety — a big risk for the population.

As long as there is political instability in the country, irreversible environmental destruction is to be expected. One environmental expert saw the need to shift the focus from economic growth towards qualitative changes in ways of life and public health quality. Myanmar ought to stop emulating the Chinese growth model and use modern technological and financial tools to invest in transformative clean air, water, and energy. During the last year, poverty increased, and the middle class fell back to pre-2010 living standards. One local company suggested that, perhaps, a solution could be embracing a resilient, less-consumption-orientated lifestyle.

Myanmar’s people need empowering leaders who recognize the psychological, social, economic, and environmental impacts of the coup to face future environmental challenges and build resilience accordingly. “It will take the younger generation and better leaders to bring us back stronger”, a sustainability consultancy told me.

For the time being, environmental organizations and local businesses are subject to the will of the military junta. The broken trust and respect between the private sector and development partners needs to be re-established. Even more of a challenge will be building trust in and respect for the public sector — when the time comes.

The people of Myanmar have the knowledge, awareness, expertise, guidance, and basic legal framework with which to improve environmental conservation. There are young, well-educated, and passionate environmental leaders in the sector who only lack the opportunity to re-launch the transformative process for a more sustainable, climate resilient, and environmentally sustainable country. The youth appear to be more demanding than before, so there is hope for improvement.

In a new democracy, young leaders will not only demand justice, accountability, governance, and peace, but a government capable of building climate resilience, ensuring environmental protection and achieving climate justice. In the future, we can only hope that environmental activism will exponentially grow as the people of Myanmar demand more changes and reforms for their country.

[1] The CDM is a leaderless movement encouraging peaceful demonstrations to protest and confront the unlawful coup d’état staged in Myanmar.

[2] These include environmental consultation laws beginning in 2012, rules established in 2014 and procedures in 2015, along with other legal guidelines, the 2018 national environmental strategy, and the national environmental policy passed in 2019.