Myanmar’s arrested environmental activism

In the two years since the military coup in February 2021, Myanmar’s natural environment has deteriorated as the embryonic legal and regulatory regime that was emerging during the decade of political and economic reforms has unravelled.

Gold mining has significantly increased, particularly in Kachin and Shan States, causing extensive social and environmental problems. The military has issued new mining permits, and informal or illegal mining has also proliferated, causing deforestation, erosion and flooding while also damaging fisheries by polluting waterways with toxic sediment.

Kachin State is also emerging as a key site for highly polluting rare-earths mining. While the illicit export of rare-earth elements across the border to China has been occurring for years, export activity has boomed since the coup. Attempts by previous governments to regulate these polluted areas have failed since the coup due to a lack of effective oversight. Some of the revenue may be helping the military crush dissent.

But just when Myanmar’s environment needs its defenders the most, environmental activists find themselves facing a plethora of new pressures and security concerns.

Myanmar’s environmental activists, and civil society more broadly, are no strangers to political restrictions. During half a century of earlier authoritarian military rule, activism was largely confined to ethnic ‘liberated areas’ or border zones beyond the reach of the military. This situation began to change during Myanmar’s decade of political and economic reforms starting in 2011, when environmental activists could openly challenge infrastructure projects, mines and government decisions for the first time.

Since the 2021 military coup, the increasingly complex situation in Myanmar has severely affected environmental movements. The safety of activists has become much more perilous under the new and highly restrictive Registration of Associations Law enacted in October 2022. The coup has had three key impacts on Myanmar’s environmental movements—fracturing, fragmentation and transformation.

A process of fracturing has occurred since the collapse of many environmental non-governmental, civil-society and community-based organisations as a result of the coup and the subsequent societal conflict. Some activists have simply abandoned activism due to security concerns, cutting all communication with networks of former colleagues to avoid scrutiny from the security services.

A similar fracturing process occurred after the 2014 Thai coup, which resulted in a dramatic reduction in environmental activism in Thailand. But the impacts of the coup in Myanmar on environmental activism have been significantly larger in proportion to the level of extreme disruption and repression across the entire society.

Environmental movements have also experienced fragmentation since many activists have been forced to relocate for safety reasons. Activists have gravitated towards more liberal spaces beyond the reach of the military regime by fleeing to ‘liberated’ areas run by sympathetic ethnic armed groups or seeking refuge abroad, usually in Thailand, from where they can continue environmental activities through other means.

Fragmentation has also occurred due to the additional difficulties in communication and transport since the coup. Internet shutdowns in various areas have made it hard for networks to remain in contact and many activists have changed their phone numbers for security reasons, making it difficult to reconnect. Even where the internet and mobile connections operate, new restrictions on major social media platforms have disrupted networks. Travel across Myanmar is also much more difficult due to higher costs, limited connections and regular checkpoints. Environmental activists and groups now often work on their own, or network in very limited ways.

Environmental movements have been transformed in a variety of ways since the coup. Activists have adopted new strategies to continue their work inside nominally state-controlled areas of Myanmar. In regions where the military remains largely in control, activists have shifted their work to rural areas where the military’s reach is weaker.

Some environmental activists have changed their role completely by shifting to the provision of humanitarian aid, while others have transitioned from working non-violently to joining the military struggle for democracy under the People’s Defence Force, part of the armed resistance that emerged after the coup, or pre-existing ethnic armed groups.

The ability of activists to openly challenge environmentally destructive activities has virtually evaporated. Activists can appeal to international actors for support, but the influence of international organisations is much reduced. During the decade of reform, civil-society organisations could complain to the international secretariat of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative if the government failed to consider their concerns. After the coup, Myanmar was suspended from the initiative due to political instability. These types of international actors simply no longer have any leverage over Myanmar.

Two years after the coup, with the international community’s attention focused on Ukraine, Myanmar’s environment is experiencing serious degradation and the communities that rely on it for their existence are facing threats to their safety and livelihoods. Meanwhile, Myanmar’s environmental activists who once shined light on these issues now face constant repression and threats to their own security. There is no easy solution, but if even a sliver of the world’s attention and resources that have been expended on Ukraine were directed towards Myanmar instead, finding a way out of the quagmire would seem more likely.