9 Minutes To Read

Extinction Rebellion and Myanmar (Part Two)

9 Minutes To Read

In Part Two of a three-part series, Thomas David Dowling explores the limits of applying Extinction Rebellion tactics in Myanmar. 

This is a three-part article on the Extinction Rebellion in Myanmar. In Part One, I outline some important vectors of environmental insecurity in Myanmar, focusing on the Extinction Rebellion Movement and introducing some current environmental activist groups and issues in Myanmar. Part Two considers what might be the biggest challenges of the use of XR tactics in Myanmar, as outlined in their handbook. Part Three asks the question of whether a new XR branch is needed in Myanmar, or if that role is not already filled by existing groups such as Climate Strike Myanmar. A conclusion then follows, advocating for groups like CSM to serve as a more optimal instrument of change in Myanmar. 

Impedimenta to Extinction Rebellion Tactics

If one is convinced of the Union’s environmental insecurity and the need to address vulnerabilities from this security sector, then it may have seemed reasonable to hypothesize in October 2018 that it would not take long for larger-scale climate change protests utilizing Extinction Rebellion tactics to arise in Myanmar, as I did.

This assertion has so far been proven wrong.

I contend that three key impedimenta exist, which, in part, account for XR’s absence in the country: (1) XR’s modus operandi; (2) the low prioritization of environmental issues; and a set of  two practical considerations pertaining to the capital and law enforcement (3).

(1) XR’s Modus Operandi

One of the biggest problems inhibiting XR’s establishment is its modus operandi, which finds its clearest expression in the group’s rushed-to-print publication, This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook (2019, hereafter referred to as the Handbook).[1] It is notable that local environmental groups in Myanmar have not adopted such tactics. This emotive call-to-arms manual outlines the environmental crisis as told by its associated scholars, activists, and frontline voices, before “giv[ing] you practical instructions for what to do now and how to react (p.13).” Perhaps the most important—and probably most recognizable—aspect of XR’s civil disobedience stratagem is the courting of arrest, as discussed by Jay Griffith in the Handbook. Griffith writes “one of the most powerful ways to bring about change is when people are willing to be imprisoned for non-violent civil disobedience (p.96).” It is clear from the Handbook and other online material that the group measure the success of their demonstrations, in part, by the number of police cells they fill (where rebels are encouraged to engage in non-cooperation) and the cost to police. These tactical directives for ‘arrestables’ (XR’s vernacular to describe those protesters who volunteer to be arrested), are premised on a fair trial, pre-prepared legal help, and the upholding of basic human rights by authorities whilst in detention (British newspapers reported arrestees being well-treated, for instance). Applying this tactical imperative to Myanmar, however, is at best problematic. Courting arrest, even under the National League for Democracy (NLD), seems like a hard sell for would be participants in light of the decades-worth of reports testifying to the dire conditions and terrible treatment of inmates.[2] Moreover, the high-profile court cases pertaining to the arrests of two Reuters journalists and the Eleven Media editors, both on trumped-up charges, illustrates that a core premise of XR’s courting arrest strategy—a fair trail after arrest—cannot be assured. The personal risk of arrestables may therefore be considered too high by would-be participants. The caveat is that prison time is often seen as a right of passage for those wishing to make meaningful political statements in Myanmar (we might include the Peacock Generation here as an example). It is not inconceivable, therefore, that some protesters using XR tactics might nevertheless choose this path to make similar ecological statements as other protesters have, in Myanmar and elsewhere. When considered and evaluated against Myanmar’s current political atmosphere, courting arrest—XR’s most powerful weapon—appears likely to be left-off the battlefield.

(2) The Low Prioritization of Environmental Issues

For Pacific Island nations like the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, and others, climate change is defined as a clear existential threat to the survival of those countries by their own governmentsrising sea levels threaten everything – including the very land itself. In contrast, equally clear empirical evidence (in the form of cyclones, desertification, heatwaves, etc.), as well as confident projections in various scientific reports (IPCC’s SR1.5), consistently demonstrate Myanmar’s climate change vulnerability. Yet, the issue is a relatively low priority for its national media and incumbent government. This is observable via the state-owned Global New Light of Myanmar (GNLM). Few environmental stories make the front pages, while the delegation of environmental policies/issues/post-crises visits fall predominantly to the Vice-Presidents—U Myint Swe and Henry van Thio—not usually the highest political echelon. It was not until August 26th (in 2017) that Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) discussed any environmental issue in the GNLM (which concerned climate change talks with the IPCC chairman) – all reported in under 90 words. It is further noteworthy that these actors seldom use appropriate language that would be expected in the articulation of environmental security concerns such as ‘urgency’, ‘severity’, ‘threat’, etc. All this suggests that ASSK (and the NLD more generally) prioritize other issues above the environment. Of course, readers may juxtapose environmental concerns against the Union’s de facto priorities from the long-standing ethnic wars, to its fragile though recovering economy, and various ongoing constitutional issues. Or, indeed, that Myanmar is 11 months away from an election. Objectively, it could be construed as entirely understandable that environmental issues are pushed underneath political and security agendas in this context. But these positions fail to address the environmental threat to human and economic security. While many elements of environmental insecurity are recognized by relevant actors, it is seldom contextualized against more traditional security issues, potentially masking the true risk. Consider human security. The 140,000 people who died as a result of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 are roughly 14% of the one-million deaths since independence.[3] At the international scale, Nargis inflicted twice as many fatalities that year as all global violence (0.54 million) and terrorism (0.18) combined.[4] Broken-down further, as many as 10,000 a year died from internal conflict in Myanmar,[5] which equates to less than half of the 22,000 annual deaths attributable  in Myanmar to pollution alone. Likewise, Nargis displaced approximately 2.4 million people in two days compared to 1-4 million in nearly 50 years of fighting (1948-1994).[6]Even using more reliable modern estimates of ethnic displacement, such as 730,000 Rohingyas or 100,000 Kachins, the impact of events like Nargis becomes self-evident. If dire environmental reports such as the IPCC’s SR1.5 or the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) whose findings reported that of the “[m]ore than 10 million new internal displacements” in the first half of 2019, persons displaced by natural disasters (around 7 million) was almost double that of displacement caused by conflict and violence (3.8 million), Myanmar’s powers-that-be must seriously consider elevating environmental (in)security to the level of ethnic conflict. The economic costs from climate change-linked severe weather events are also demonstrably significant. In Myanmar, the agricultural sector is often described as “the backbone of the nation’s economy.” In 2018, the GDP growth forecast of 7.2% was largely expected to come from agriculture. This sector accounts for nearly 40% of GDP and employs as many as 70% of the Union’s workforce – a figure consistent with other developing countries. By March 2018, decades of economic mismanagement were seemingly reversing: Myanmar exported three million tonnes of rice – a feat not witnessed for half a century. Yet, this success belies the country’s vulnerability to severe weather effects. Monsoonal flooding in the summer of 2018, for instance, destroyed hundreds of acres of farmland in Bago, Mon, and Tanintharyi reducing export earnings. In 2015, Floodlist described how heavy monsoonal precipitation (which combined with Cyclone Komen) impacted most of Myanmar’s states and regions: 1.152 million people were affected and more than 1.29 million acres of farmland were inundated, of which, 687,000 acres were damaged before the planting season. While the environmental sector is evidently a low security priority—an outlook that broadly corresponds to Myanmar’s ASEAN neighbors—the cost that Myanmar pays for not acting now (as opposed to less threatened or more economically robust nations) is much greater. Despite some articulation of various environmental risks and pressures, leading actors have largely failed to define the threats using security language appropriate to the problem. This thereby reduces the sense of urgency and the potential for a larger XR mobilization among the population.

(3) Practical Considerations

Several other impedimenta to the utilization of XR tactics in Myanmar exist. I discuss two below: demonstrating in the capital and law enforcement.

3(a): The Capital

As outlined in the Handbook, XR offers a civil resistance model that emphasizes a large mass of demonstrators—ideally 50,000—undertaking a range of disobedience in the country’s capital (erecting temporary barricades, getting arrested etc). These related tactics aim to impact the finances of both the government and its leading actors, force policymakers to confront the climate emergency (as XR understands it), and attract media to the group’s demands (which in turn provides a political platform that’s harder to ignore, thus forcing change).

However, heading to Myanmar’s capital for these purposes may prove fruitless. In economic terms, shutting down praetorian Naypyidaw with barriers or by gluing protesters onto immovable infrastructure is unlikely to impact the government economically given that Yangon remains the commercial center. Likewise, many lawmakers are from Yangon and continue to spend much of their time there; XR-inspired demands may well be missed or otherwise ignored by the very policymakers that it would be necessary to influence. Moreover, despite substantial writing about media liberalization under Thein Sein (e.g. Victoria Milko), there is concern that some media freedoms have withered under ASSK. Elsewhere, the state retains significant input in shaping the discourse and dissemination of content, particularly in the GNLM, widely recognized as the regime’s mouthpiece.

It is pertinent, therefore, to ask whether the effort (and risk) of amassing a large civil movement in Naypyidaw would be effective; to my mind at least, Naypyidaw feels like a tactical non-starter for hypothetical XR. Blockading Yangon, in contrast—where CSM have peacefully protested on a number of occasions—would stand a better chance of success according to XR’s strategic imperatives.

3(b): The Response of Law Enforcement

If hypothetical mass XR-style demonstrations in Myanmar actually occurred, the response of authorities is open to question, particularly in light of historical precedents established in 1988 and 2007 when respective regimes met large-scale civil uprisings with lethal brutality and human rights violations.[7] Since 1988, the army doubled in size, acquired evermore powerful weapons, and experienced significant elite actor promotions/purges/resignations.[8] The biggest change was the peaceful transition of (some) power to the NLD in March 2016 after more than five decades of military rule. Despite this major political re-orientation, the army remains Bamar-dominated and has lost none of its martial vigor under democracy; rather, its campaigns have expanded and intensified. Moreover, the police continue to operate under military command. Without changes in the army’s outlook, serious questions remain in how security forces might deal with large-scale demonstrations and in what contexts they may be found. Could XR-inspired demonstrators in Yangon or Naypyidaw trust the security forces not to shoot if the crowd became angry (though still non-violent), or indeed had a core of arrestables engaging in more confrontational disobedience? Perhaps the 15 local protesters shot with rubber bullets by police at Letpadaung mine in March 2017 offer some negative insight. Equally, would security forces be able to show restraint towards ethnic groups demonstrating in Myitkyina, Hakha, or Kengtung – and respect their rights? On May 12th, 2018, for example, a non-violent, 200-strong anti-war protest in Kachin State was broken up by riot police “and harassed by plain-clothed policemen and hardline nationalists.” Police denied beating detained protesters. And the peaceful, non-confrontational 200-strong CSM’s march in Yangon on September 22nd found itself with an armed police escort. Indeed, this is not an isolated case for CSM; when I spoke to Kyaw Ye Htet via Facebook Messenger,[9] I was told that armed police usually accompany them, along with police informers who take photos and record videos. While I was told “nothing serious has happened,” CSM have been asked by authorities not to protest, sometimes receiving threats. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to speculate harsh responses to large climate change demonstrations employing XR tactics – or indeed any others. Additionally, could hypothetical protesters employing XR-advocated tactics trust army commanders with vested economic interests (perhaps logging, palm oil plantations, or jade mining) to be impartial and objective if their pockets were actually hurt by targeted civil disobedience? It seems unlikely, especially when the Tatmadaw have only thinly masked the conduct of several military operations against Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) on security grounds, whereby war-theaters often center on areas of rich natural resources like Tanai, Kachin State. Objectivity seems less likely still in the context of the one-year prison sentences recently handed out to five performers of the satirical troupe, the Peacock Generation (with two other members’ fate to be decided). Among the charges was a routine about the military’s widely understood control of the economy. This contravened Section 505(a) of the Penal Code. Regardless, the troupe sidestepped censor-protocols on the expectation that their lyrics would be banned; instead, they headed directly to the streets. The case against the Peacock Generation may offer some indication of the army’s response to more robust climate change protests and certainly “speaks volumes about the dire state of freedom of expression in Myanmar,” according to Joanne Mariner of Amnesty International. Extinction Rebellion tactics may presently be absent in Myanmar, but even their hypothetical usage forces hard questions relating to certain fundamental democratic rights in Myanmar, including the right to protest, irrespective of the cause.

Thomas Dowling is a Ph.D student with the University of Leicester. His primary research interests revolve around environmental security in Myanmar (particularly in the context of human security), viewed through the prism of securitisation theory. Thomas is also well-travelled in Myanmar, and lived in Taunggyi, Shan State for a short while. Previously, Thomas earned degrees in Ancient History (BA, MA; Bristol University) and International Security Studies (MA; Leicester University). Presently, Thomas lives in Daegu, South Korea, with his wife, baby, and Jack Russell.

Notes

[1] Extinction Rebellion (2019), This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook, Penguin Random House, UK
[2] E.g. Peter Popham (2016), The Lady and the Generals, Rider, London, UK; Benedict Rogers (2015) Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads, Rider, London, UK; Emma Larkin (2011), No Bad News For The King, Penguin Books, London, UK
[3] Martin Smith (1994), Ethnic Groups in Burma: Development, Democracy and Human Rights, Anti-Slavery International, London, UK; Thant Myint-U (2006), The River of Lost Footsteps, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, USA
[4] Peter Hough (2015), ‘Chapter 15: Environmental security,’ in International Security Studies, Routledge, London, UK, pps.211-224
[5] Smith (1994)
[6] Smith (1994)

[7] E.g. Popham (2016); Rogers (2015), Larkin (2011)
[8]  For more details, see Rogers (2010) and Shelby Tucker (2001), Burma: The Curse of Independence, Pluto Press. London, UK 
[9]  December 17th, 2019