8 Minutes To Read

Extinction Rebellion and Myanmar (Part Three)

8 Minutes To Read

Thomas David Dowling concludes his three-part series on the Extinction Rebellion 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. 

The Feasibility of XR

So far, I’ve highlighted some of the environmental threats to Myanmar as well as some important obstacles the hypothetical use of XR-advocated tactics may encounter in Myanmar.

These obstacles are not insurmountable: XR tactics remains viable, in theory. The question of establishing an XR branch in Myanmar is answered by the existence of numerous groups who widely fill such a space. The main thrust of this position is the similarity of Extinction Rebellion’s other characteristics and strategies to different groups in Myanmar. With this in mind, it’s worth exploring some of XR’s other advocated tactics and principles found in their Handbook within the Myanmar context, and showing how such principles have a long history in the Union.

XR’s western founders argue that non-violence is the most effective means of making a political impact. This is a lesson they have learned from the east. In Myanmar, both the sangha (the monkhood) and the NLD as national institutions have long subscribed to nonviolence.[1] Myanmar’s 1988 and 2007 mass protests were non-violent – even when the army started shooting.[2] Under the NLD, several peaceful protests have occurred over the ongoing war in Kachin State. Additional examples include the protesting of several hundred—perhaps even a thousand—people when three Karens were sentenced for organizing a ceremony to commemorate Karen Martyrs Day.

In regards to environmental issues, non-violent demonstrations have occurred on various occasions. In Kachin State, more than 7000 Kachin people protested against attempts to restart the Myitsone Dam project; also in Kachin State, a draft gemstone law saw 500 locals take to the streets. And of course, Climate Strike Myanmar’s protests in May and September  2019 are noteworthy in this context.

The de-centralized structure of Extinction Rebellion, in my view, also reflects conditions and relationships already found within the Union, not only within its robust civil society, including CSOs concerned with climate change and natural resource governance, but also within other religious and ethnic institutions, dozens of old and emerging political parties, and a varying degree of local governmental control. While not every climate change threat effects everyone equally (cyclones don’t imperial Shan State, nor does drought present a problem in Rakhine State), these myriad local civil society and related actors might better utilize the XR-relevant models to frame local issues as national issues (as Myitsone has been framed by some Kachin leaders) relevant to the environmental and national security of all, and bring those same issues to national attention through coordinated actions.

Momo Haque’s chapter in the Handbook entitled ‘Feeding the Rebellion’ highlights the need for a mass movement in the manner of XR to be well-supplied, in part, because of the group’s aim to maintain demonstrations over a sustained period of time. Two related points can be made here. The first is Myanmar’s long tradition of lay Buddhists providing the material needs of the monks (food, clothing, etc.), and so would, in theory, have the capacity to sustain a popular mass climate change movement if one materialized through the coordinated actions of CSM and other groups (though probably not in Naypyidaw given its low population); so far, however, environmental protests that have occurred, whether in ethnic areas or those lead by CSM in Yangon, have only lasted a short time, rendering a sustained supply-effort irrelevant.

One of the many lessons of 1988, 2007, and Nargis in 2008, is that the Union’s many peoples are capable of mobilizing in extreme circumstances. In the former instances, mass movements emerged in response to government actions—demonetization, rising fuel costs and assaults on sacrosanct monks[3] —and in the latter, against the government’s anticipated inactive response to a natural disaster that became a humanitarian catastrophe.[4] Myanmar’s post-Nargis civil society remains strong (Holliday[5] and Human Rights Watch both regard this as the one good outcome of that tragedy), but has not come together for any environmental issue with the same force, with perhaps Myitsone Dam as the only possible exception.

Yet, the capacity for mass mobilizations around particular issues certainly exists; the relative success some ultranationalist monks had in mobilizing anti-Rohingya support using Facebook as its platform is one powerful, albeit negative, example. Climate change protesters in Myanmar could likely convince and draw on Myanmar’s broader civil society landscape to join in calling attention to existentially important environmental issues; rich historical precedents highlight civil society’s shattering potential to influence political change, and no one knows that better than CSOs there.

The Rebellion Myanmar Isn’t Yet Having

Readers are unlikely to have missed my personal bias in favor of the Extinction Rebellion movement’s tactics; I share the view that the climate emergency requires urgent action, and that civil disobedience as espoused by XR is a tactical imperative appropriate to the scale of the environmental crisis.

This premise, while useful for initially exploring the feasibly of XR tactics in Myanmar, overlooked a simpler, more fundamental question: does Myanmar need them?

Perhaps the most obvious place to start is with courting arrest. XR’s powerful weapon of mass disruption undoubtedly put climate change on the political agenda in the UK, while the 1,000 protesters arrested in April led to 30,000 new members joining in more than 30 countries. With these outcomes in mind, the group’s tactics could be judged as successful.

Myanmar’s particular political and legal contexts however, present significant personal risk to protesters in Myanmar employing XR tactics, with only extremely limited scope for the sorts of positive outcomes XR’s founders witnessed in the UK. If we assume, therefore, that courting arrest is an unlikely strategy for Myanmar, we might objectively struggle to determine how Extinction Rebellion differs from other environmental movements already operating within the Union.

We may instead point to XR’s overt ‘Declaration of Rebellion’ that attempts to legitimize the group, justify its civil disobedience, and define its objectives. The counterposition might merely argue that it’s the tone of the declaration that is different. In my view, such a declaration of rebellion in some fragile or transitional states like Myanmar could be perceived as adversarial, especially given the urgent and passionate language of their demands. This may endanger the liberty of protesters applying XR tactics and could be counterproductive to the green movement in Myanmar as a whole.

Likewise, even the less confrontational tactics of dedicated arrestables that rank and file protesters might participate in (such as erecting temporary barricades and disrupting transport routes), may end up serving only to alienate the very support Myanmar’s climate change protesters seek. In the UK’s capital, the de facto XR heartland and where the group has substantial support, some Londoners—as well as other voices around Britain—are questioning the group’s tactics, as the BBC’s program, Question Time, recently discussed.

Elsewhere, critical commentators like Brandon O’Neill have described XR as a “death cult” that “must be critici[z]ed and ridiculed out of existence.” While I think O’Neill goes too far, he does make a valid point: “[t]he group is asking people in London and other cities around the world to ‘take two weeks off work’ and join the revolt against the ‘climate and ecological crisis’. You can tell who they’re trying to appeal to. Working-class people and the poor of New Delhi, Mumbai and Cape Town – some of the cities in which Extinction Rebellion will be causing disruption – of course cannot afford to take two weeks off work.” This is a relevant observation for Myanmar given that 70% of the country works in the agricultural sector and would neither have the time nor the funds to protest for sustained periods of time. XR, with its western origin, does not seem tailored for the poor.

Moreover, when measured against each other, the Fridays for Future/Global Climate Strike movement which did take root in Myanmar, might perceptively be regarded as more successful than XR. Quantifiably, F4F has permeated more countries; in fact, almost every country at the time of writing (185 out of 195), including the majority of ASEAN member states. In addition, 7.6 million participants meant that this was one of the biggest global protests in history.

Extinction Rebellion tallies-up a more modest country-presence of 72. Again, in comparison with F4F’s inroads to Asia in its September 2019 demonstrations, XR’s International Day of Rebellion was joined by just five Asian countries: India, Japan, Pakistan, Turkey, and Hong Kong (China). No ASEAN state, including groups within Myanmar, armed themselves with XR placards. It could be argued that F4F has been more successful in attracting support to its non-confrontational protests than XR’s direct action approach.

CSM, for their part, are filling the ‘XR role’, and have demonstrated several times last year, participating in both global climate strikes. Their first involvement came at the end of May 2019. On Sunday 22nd September, CSM joined the global climate strikes that ran from Friday 20th-27th. This second occasion saw “[a]t least 200 protesters gathered in front of Bogyoke Market and marched to Sule Pagoda and Maha Bandoola Park across from Yangon City Hall,” according to Myat Moe Aung.

Finally, CSM are well positioned within Myanmar’s context. Their three basic demands are found in Mizzima: “[f]irstly, they have urged the government to officially recognize emergency situations related to climate and to take required action. Secondly, they have called for a stop to all projects that can harm the natural environment and climate as soon as possible. And thirdly, they called for environmental justice for all in Myanmar society.” Initially, this trinity might appear similar to XR’s demands, but there are two important differences: the clear references to Myanmar and its context; and also the framing of the climate emergency through social justice – in this they also bear similarities to core elements of F4F, as well as to themes in Thunberg’s most powerful speeches.

Existent green groups like CSM understand and work within the framework that contemporary Myanmar allows. The demonstrations may be smaller and localized, but what might be regarded as a conventional approach to demonstrating presents less risk to participants while promoting similar ideas, albeit in a less urgent, confrontational way than XR. CSM are indeed affiliated with XR, but would be climate rebels may feel this is sufficient. XR’s tactics are a toolbox, with not all tools necessarily appropriate to the Union.

Conclusion

When Extinction Rebellion emerged in the UK the movement pulsated with an angry albeit non-violent sense of urgency to “act now” that seemed to capture a growing sense of ecological anxiety around the globe.

The group’s tactics were fuelled by the dire predictions of the IPCC report and generated both fervent supporters and hostile critics. Yet, while XR’s momentum is apparent, it’s confrontational imperatives, particularly courting arrest, have not resonated in as many countries as the F4F/GCS movement.

For those considering the more radical applications of protest advocated by XR in Myanmar it might be wisest to let other ‘articulations’ such as CSM operate rather than risk either the personal safety of activists or the alienation of the green movement writ large; what would be worse than no XR and a more limited sense of urgency in addressing ecological challenges would be the rejection of the broader green movement.

So far, no specific ‘XR Myanmar’ has arisen; nor does it need to. In XR’s Handbook, Sam Knights wrote that the movement “acknowledge[s] that Extinction Rebellion is just one articulation of a feeling that is being felt across the world. We see ourselves as one branch of a much wider, stronger, wiser movement (p.12).” In Myanmar the space XR might occupy is already filled by civil society actors utilizing appropriate tactics which may not reflect the urgency in which climate change needs to be addressed, but which do reflect what is, right now, feasible in a Union that has hosted myriad civil wars and military dictatorships for nearly the entirety of its independence. As things stand, Climate Strike Myanmar are growing as an organization, working within the political and legal framework of the Union, and importantly making the news where the quintessential environmental movement’s messages are articulated. As are others.

This is not to say that an XR branch might emerge separately from the many groups concerned with climate change in Myanmar; it would be another woven pattern in a rich tapestry of social movements.

Ultimately, Extinction Rebellion is but one road that will hopefully lead towards environmental security. In some western countries, XR’s tactics may help those governments arrive at that destination faster, but in Myanmar, where the roads are quite different, the pace that CSM, BEWG, and the rest walk may yet produce the same results in time.

Acknowledgements

I wish to thank all those who took the time to read various initial drafts of my work, offering thoughts, suggestions, and feedback, including Alan Dowling, Jack Dowling, Jayne Burns, Dr. Steve Cooke, Dr. Helen Dexter, and Edith Mirante whose extensive subject knowledge on both Myanmar and environmental issues proved a font of wisdom. Also, a heartfelt thank you to Tea Circle’s editors (Bobby Anderson and Shona Loong) for their extensive comments, guidance, and contributions to this piece.

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] Peter Popham (2016), The Lady and the Generals, Rider, London, UK
[2] Benedict Rogers (2015) Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads, Rider, London, UK
[3] Richard Cockett (2015), Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma, Yale University Press, New Haven and London
[4] Emma Larkin (2011), No Bad News For The King, Penguin Books, London, UK
[5] Larkin (2011)