Extinction Rebellion and Myanmar (Part One)

Thomas David Dowling discusses environmental movements and current climate change issues in Myanmar, Part One of a three-part series on 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 introduce 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.

Myanmar’s entrenched third position on Germanwatch’s Long-Term Climate Risk Index plainly illustrates the Union’s environmental insecurity from a variety of climate change threats.

Myanmar, however, is not alone.

On October 8th, 2018, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published an alarming 616-page report that described the consequences of increasingly extreme climate change effects upon human societies should global temperatures rise 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

The report’s headline-grabbing claim that the international community had just 12 years to ensure this was avoided injected a sense of urgency into the green movement, whilst energizing new, more confrontational direct-action campaigning.

In the same month as the IPCC’s publication, Extinction Rebellion (XR)—a UK birthed, non-violent, civil-disobedience-orientated, decentralized, and media-cultivating group—emerged, joining a growing chorus of environmental voices, including the then nascent Fridays for Future (F4F) strikes lead by Swedish teenager—a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Time Person of the Year, and catalyst behind ‘climate strike’ being the Collins Dictionary word of the year—Greta Thunberg.

Thunberg’s inspired movement lacks the more militant civil disobedience stratagems of XR, but are they are united in their aims: to force serious, quantifiable, and sufficient enough government action to address the climate emergency.

Over the last fourteen months, both organizations have grown rapidly. F4F’s Global Climate Strike demonstrations which took place between September 20th-27th 2019 attracted the participation of 7.6 million people across 185 countries, including Myanmar, represented by Climate Strike Myanmar (CSM) on September 22nd.

In Extinction Rebellion’s case, by the time they launched their International Day of Rebellion on October 7th, 2019, the movement boasted representation in 72 countries across six continents, amounting to nearly 500 branches. For that October rebellion, branches in 60 cities pledged to ‘rebel’ in various ways.

Myanmar, however, was not among them. In fact, at the time of publication, no XR branch has yet been established within the Union. It is, however, pertinent to note that CSM are affiliated with XR International, as illustrated by various XR banners (these are visible on their Facebook page, and confirmed via correspondence on Facebook Messenger).

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A Climate Strike Myanmar protest (Source: Climate Strike Myanmar’s Facebook Page)

The remainder of this article is divided into three sections. The first outlines some important vectors of environmental insecurity in Myanmar. The second considers what might be the biggest challenges of the use of XR tactics in Myanmar, as outlined in their handbook. The third 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 CSM. A conclusion then follows, advocating for groups like Climate Strike Myanmar to serve as a more optimal instrument of change in Myanmar. Before progressing, a sample of existing environmental movements is presented.

Existent Green Movements

While Extinction Rebellion’s tactics and the global climate strike movement represented by CSM are the focus of this paper, it must be clearly stated that CSM are but one of several home-grown environmental groups in Myanmar. Other noteworthy groups include The Burma Environmental Working Group (BEWG) and the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), both of which arose in ethnic areas, that is to say, non-Bamar.

Founded by Kyaw Ye Htet, CSM formally emerged to join the global climate strike movement on May 24th, 2019 with 29 others. The core of the group is 20-strong and “practice collective leadership with inclusive and consensus decision-making.” Of their nine demonstrations at the time of publication, Kyat Ye Htet informed me that 300 participants was CSM’s highest turnout thus far. CSM, like other Thunberg-inspired groups around the world, have a broad base among various youth organizations, student unions, and other CSOs. Additionally, the nascent organization has working research and communications teams. Presently, CSM are looking to expand their operations by “creat[ing] a network for climate education and advocacy” as they also continue to organize climate protests.[1]

BEWG is a coalition of environmental organizations that first assembled in 2005. Its members range from Arakan Oil Watch and EarthRights International to KESAN. The group aims to “provide a forum for member organizations to combine the successes, knowledge, expertise and voices of ethnic peoples in pursuit of not just local livelihoods, but sustainable and peace national, regional and international development policy.” Furthermore, “[m]embers collaborate on research, reporting, advocacy campaigns, capacity-building initiatives and policy formulation (p.2).”

Established in 2001, KESAN represents the local environmental and societal interests of the Karen ethnic group; KESAN is a non-government and a non-profit organization. Amongst their stated mission (as outlined here) is “to secure Karen lands and sustainable livelihoods … to build climate resilience … [and] to assist displaced people seeking to rebuild their lives.” Their objectives echo this mission, including the aim of “advocat[ing] for local, state and national policies and practices that safeguard the environment and the rights of local people while protecting against unsustainable and harmful development.” More information about KESAN’s activities and achievements (such as the launch of the Salween Peace Park), can be found in their document of the same name.

Myanmar’s Environmental Vulnerability

Over the last twenty years, Myanmar has consistently been recognized as one of the most environmentally insecure countries on the planet. This is empirically illustrated by appreciating the Union’s extreme vulnerability to cyclones like Nargis; monsoonal flooding (which can affect an extensive geographical area, as occurred in 2015); droughts and desertification in the Dry Zone; water shortages in places like Hakha (Chin State), and heatwaves in major urban areas like Yangon (April 2019 temperatures were the hottest on record).

Such events as these have the potential to inflict numerous fatalities, devastate urban settlements, and greatly impact the country’s agrarian economy; Cyclone Nargis serves as the exemplar example in these regards (for more analysis, readers might consider Dr. Reshmi Banerjee’s article for Tea Circle).

A more holistic understanding of Myanmar’s environmental (in)security beyond those severe weather events outlined above, includes environmental crime (e,g. illegal logging, mining, and wildlife poaching), palm oil plantation expansion, mega-infrastructural projects (e.g. the Myitsone Dam), the collection of wood for use as household fuel, and large-scale deforestation, to name but a few.

Aside from these concurrent dangers now, predictive global modeling suggests that Myanmar will not only lose territorial mass to rising sea levels, but that much of the country could become unlivable. This is also a prognosis shared by acclaimed Myanmar historian, Thant Myint-U.

Furthermore, many problems are exacerbated by the presence of natural resources predominately located in non-Bamar lands. One theme that has been extensively covered is the connections between ethnic conflict and the control of extractable commodities such as jade, amber, gold, and teak in places as Kachin State. Articles by Sai Wansai and several books authored by Bertil Lintner offer authoritative insight into these surrounding issues. Additional challenges have come from local communities themselves, like the Lisu, who have been known to hunt endangered animals.[2] Elsewhere, allegations have emerged that the Karenni National People’s Liberation Front (KNPLF) made “a shadowy agreement” with the government of Myanmar to harvest timber under areas they control. Indeed, even ceasefires present problems, as lulls in violence enable the opportunity for resource exploitation.[3] Realities such as these illustrate that environmental security issues are highly nuanced and multilayered.

Suffice to say at this juncture, Myanmar should be recognized as being highly vulnerable to several significant vectors for insecurity emanating from the environmental sector.


[1] All information in this paragraph given by Kyaw Ye Htet via Facebook Messenger on Climate Strike Myanmar’s Facebook Page, 17th December, 2019
[2] E.g. Alan Rabinowitz (2010), Life in the Valley of Death: The Fight to Save Tigers in a Land of Guns, Gold, and Greed, Island Press, Washington D.C., USA
[3] E.g.W. John Kress (2009), The Weeping Goldsmith, Abbeville Press, New York, USA

Author: Thomas David Dowling

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.