Myanmar’s vulnerability to the climate emergency and the lack of preparedness after years of neglect has contributed to the devastation caused by heavy rains in recent weeks. Flooding in Rakhine State has killed at least six people, major transport links have been significantly damaged in the southeast, while Rohingya attempting to leave Myanmar by boat to find refuge in Malaysia sank after encountering stormy seas and heavy rains. The impact of climate change in Myanmar has been created by the rapacious development model of wealthy industrial nations, coupled with a legacy of years of environmental degradation, unsustainable natural resource extraction, and underinvestment in disaster preparedness by successive military juntas and their business cronies. This is disproportionately impacting communities in Myanmar and leaving them with little avenues for redress. However, hope does lie in the indigenous, grassroots initiatives and projects that represent a more sustainable future for the country.
Flooding in the past few weeks has caused widespread damage as heavy rains hit much of the country. Across Karen, Mon, Rakhine States and Bago Region, over 30,000 people had to be evacuated as floodwaters rose. In Karen State, sections of one of the most important transport links – the Asia Highway that runs from Myawaddy near the Thai border and Kawkareik – collapsed while sections of the Mawlamyine-Yangon highway in Mon State were underwater. In Rakhine State, at least six people – including a mother and a daughter – died from flooding. Tragically, a boat carrying 55 Rohingya that had left Rathaedaung in Rakhine State heading for Malaysia sank in the Bay of Bengal, with 45 people missing, after encountering heavy rains and strong waves. The flooding in Rakhine State has only worsened the situation for tens of thousands of people still suffering from the aftermath of Cyclone Mocha which made landfall in May. Post-Mocha, the junta is still restricting the delivery of humanitarian aid, leaving people lacking safe drinking water, sanitation infrastructure, and access to healthcare. For those displaced by Mocha, or from the violence of the military junta, the heavy rains and flooding only add to their burden. For example, internally displaced persons who rely on the forest for firewood cannot find dry fuel to cook, while flooding may have shifted the position of landmines into areas previously thought of as uncontaminated. Furthermore, the damage to transport infrastructure will further hinder delivery of humanitarian aid, while the costs of essential goods will also increase.
The communities in Myanmar vulnerable to the impacts of such flooding are already suffering from intense violence committed by the junta. The lack of disaster preparedness – a legacy of a power hungry Myanmar military that has wasted Myanmar’s resources to arm itself and extract profit for top generals’ personal wealth from disastrous environmentally-damaging natural resource extraction – adds to Myanmar’s vulnerability to such climate events. It is one of the most at risk countries in the world. However, Myanmar’s vulnerability also reflects deep global inequalities. It is rich nations that have caused climate change, including colonial powers like the UK that extracted labor and resources from Global South countries such as Myanmar to feed their rapid, polluting development model. In 2023, fossil fuel production, skepticism around global warming and the huge carbon footprint of material elites continue to do harm to the planet. But it is communities in countries such as Myanmar that feel the effects.
Not only are they innocent victims of global greed, but the disdain that the current illegal Myanmar junta and previous military regimes have shown towards them and their environment exacerbates these injustices. Furthermore, exploitation of natural resources and degradation of the environment has increased since the coup attempt. As the All Burma Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance (ABIPA) has documented, “across the country, illicit mining operations have proliferated, destroying forests, unearthing mountains and polluting surrounding rivers and streams.” Global Witness has also documented the expansion of toxic rare earth mining, particularly in Kachin State, a boom that has “led to the poisoning of surrounding land and waterways, harming local communities and wildlife.” ABIPA also notes how environmental human rights defenders have continued “to protect their lands, forests and rivers by organizing their communities, demonstrating and advocating against rapidly expanding natural resource extraction projects, and strengthen local resource management systems.” For example, on International Rivers Day this year, over 700 people in Karen State and over 400 in Kachin State gathered to call for the protection of their rivers, particularly the Salween and the Irrawaddy, and to halt all dam construction on these vital sources of life and livelihood.
Yet, as with the determination manifest in the Spring Revolution, there are also communities in Myanmar building an alternative way of relating to each other and the environment. They are not just resisting and reacting, but building the new future and a new political system. One prime example is the Salween Peace Park in Karen State, an indigenous peoples’ initiative that governs a 5,400 square kilometer protected area through grassroots governance, environmental conservation, self-determination and cultural preservation. Its guiding principles reflect the need to protect the natural environment and live in relation with it rather than exploiting it. Despite the junta airstrikes that have hit the Salween Peace Park, it continues to pursue a more sustainable future. Another similar example is the Tawthi Taw Oo Indigenous Park which aims “to establish a space where Indigenous People are free to maintain and practice their traditional culture while sustainably managing their land, natural, and biodiversity resources.”
Myanmar is geographically vulnerable to climate change, and the type of damage done by recent flooding will only increase. The international community, especially those which have contributed and continue to contribute the most to climate change, have a moral responsibility to not only cut down their own carbon emissions, but to support the grassroots, indigenous conservation efforts of ethnic nationalities of Myanmar. Not only does this support a more sustainable future for the country that rejects the exploitation, and damage to the environment that is being done by successive military regimes and the current illegitimate junta, but it supports the self-determination and federalism goals that are inherent in the Spring Revolution.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
By ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights
By Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar
By Myanmar Accountability Project
By Shan Human Rights Foundation
By Assistance Association for Political Prisoners
By Burma News International and Myanmar Peace Monitor
By Chin Human Rights Organization, Center for International Law-Philippines and Myanmar Accountability Project
By Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar
By The World Bank
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”