The famed rich natural resources …
Myanmar is renowned for radiant rubies and translucent jade. It also abounds in copper, gas, oil, natural gas. Until recently, it was a trendy tourist destination with its gilded temples and rambling rice fields.
With the exception of widespread disbelief and then shock over the genocide against the Rohingya, narratives about Myanmar have tended to romanticise the country. They rarely discuss the high levels of income poverty, the extreme inequalities in wealth and income and power, and the myriad forms of existential social exclusion. There have been consecutive military dictatorships, most of which overt; the more recent gentler one of the 2000-tens somewhat camouflaged by the re-instatement of parliament, albeit housed in grand compounds removed far away from the public. Common narratives tend to ignore that the country has suffered 60 years of civil war, with the military attacking, enslaving and displacing ethnic minority communities. There has also been too little critical review of the government’s economic policies under the National League of Democracy (NLD).
… and the dystopian reality
Now, once again, the military with its coup is using lethal violence and openly oppressing its citizens. Myanmar’s current distress is like a prism: all the global dystopian situations are exploding at once in this country (as in many others).
In Myanmar, 40% of the population live in multidimensional poverty. Access to decent work and stable incomes remains a dream. In the newly created special economic zones or along the oil and gas pipelines, labour rights are absent. There are an estimated 450 000 garment workers in 600 factories, who only in some instances have been able to assert their rights. An estimated 3 million people have migrated to neighbouring countries, where many work and live in slave-like conditions. A large majority of the population are haphazardly self-employed in the informal sector, as small-scale farmers, in insecure occupations in construction or petty trade, or risking their lives in mining. The socio-economic and human security conditions are even worse in those states where ethnic minorities form the majority.
This dire situation has worsened in the COVID19 pandemic, where households running their own businesses reported a 62% drop in their household income and almost 50% of households eat less than usual since March 2020.
Structural inequality is enormous. The military – either directly or through a network of crony capitalists who benefit from direct connections to the military – owns vast swathes of assets: land and plantations, shares in the oil and gas pipelines, mining companies as well as factories, and immense offshore financial investments. Their vast incomes do not feed into the government budget, which has one of the lowest shares in social spending in the entire region. As an illustration of the depth of inequality: less than 9 days of natural gas revenues would be needed to pay the salaries of one teacher per each primary school grade; a 0.6% increase in the actual tax collected on hardwood extraction would secure the annual salary of 6,000 social workers; or 0.9% of revenues from new natural gas projects would provide for the purchase of all the vaccines needed annually (2013 figures, by UNICEF).
In addition, and contrary to common perceptions, some strands of Burman Buddhism are racist. There has been a longstanding widespread prejudice against people of others faiths, the most egregious example being against the Rohingya people who tend to be of Islamic faith. The military perpetrated atrocities and genocide, with some monks condoning and even fuelling attacks. Social exclusion in more subtle forms affects the other ethnic and religious minorities.
The notion that Myanmar is gender-just is also a misconception – as it often is in countries led by female politicians – with numerous misogynist superstitions surrounding the female body and her rights. Subversively though, protestors are now using women’s clothes to delay military and police attacks.
Nature itself is under severe strain, with attempts to build destructive dams, and hydropower plants and copper mineswhich would forcibly displace local populations in the ethnic minority areas. China is succeeding in bringing Myanmar into its environmentally and financially disastrous Belt and Road orbit, which would lead to excessive port and road building and further deforestation.
So, what can the international community do to support Myanmar’s courageous civil disobedience movement?
The protesters are divided in their recommendations. Some are advocating for the reinstatement of the legitimate government and its Committee representing the elected democratic parliamentarians (CRPH). Others want to turn the page and create a truly inclusive Myanmar, e.g. as a democratic federation of its many states, going beyond the politics of the National League for Democracy. Many civil servants are on strike; there is a general call to boycott products coming from military-owned companies. The armed wings of some of the ethnic minority groups are joining the peaceful protests.
But obviously the most urgent –and totally united – call is for an immediate end to the systematic brutality of the military: at the time of writing, 58 people have been murdered by police and military, and over 2000 persons have been detainedin the few weeks since 1 February, the day of the coup.
A few ASEAN governments are calling for their companies to divest from Myanmar; trade unions are asking for business to stay but to boycott military firms. Malaysian parliamentarians have urged ASEAN to suspend Myanmar’s membership; academics are invoking “communal ASEAN values”. A former Executive Secretary of the UN Regional Commission, has expressed concern, in language dramatic for a UN official, that there is a risk of Myanmar “imploding” and becoming a “failed state”, if insiders or outsiders do not succeed in getting the elected government and the military junta to negotiate and come to a compromise of renewed power sharing.
Indeed, some protestors are calling for the UN to support them under the “responsibility to protect”. This potential multilateral instrument of peace-making, very belatedly formulated in 2005 in response to the genocides in Rwanda and ex-Yugoslavia – has never been codified. Thus, the multilateral system is toothless – because member states defend a concept of non-interference and national sovereignty, in line with the UN Charta, obstructing any assertive protection of human rights.
But there are some soft tools of the UN that need to be better used.
The UN Security Council finally issued a statement (10 March) that condemns violence against Myanmar protesters and urges military restraint, and expresses concern over the arbitrary detention of members of the Government. Because China, Russia, India and Vietnam do not want to criticise the Myanmar junta directly, the statement avoids listing any specific action such as economic sanctions or an arms embargo, but supports a role in practical reconciliation for regional organizations such as ASEAN, and of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Myanmar who ought to visit Myanmar as soon as possible.
The UN’s General Assembly and the Human Rights Council have continuously devoted high-profile sessions to Myanmar, condemning the violation of human rights. Task forces have made recommendations on the Rohingya issue. Special rapporteurs have been providing analyses of the economic interests of the military and ruling groups. All these efforts would which need to be publicised far more assertively.
The UN agencies on the ground in Myanmar have been supporting the emergence of trade unions, supporting corporate social responsibility, or helping create a system of social protection, starting with small monthly transfers to mothers and their young children in some districts. These gingerly efforts have now come to a halt, but need to continue, as paths to economic, social, political and civil rights.
Interestingly, in July of this year, Myanmar is due to submit its first report on its SDG performance to the High-level Political Forum of the UN. The member states and the UN agencies in Myanmar and New York must ensure that it is compiled and presented by the legitimate elected government and offers an honest assessment of all 17 SDGs – from poverty and hunger, climate and biodversity, to human rights and good governance. If not, they must reject the report, or the HLPF would be a total farce.
Myanmar’s political, economic, social and ecological distress, as suggested at the outset of this piece, is sadly a reflection of global massive structural inequities. Taking the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as an orientation, no country is on track to meet its commitments, and increasing numbers of countries are descending into despotism. Our only hope is that this will alarm the international community sufficiently to pick up its responsibility to protect and reinstate all human rights, gender and climate justice, everywhere and for all, in a peacefully negotiated fashion.
K Za Win, poet, Myanmar 1982 – 2021
The River, whose stomach
was cut open,
has declared war
on our tiny house on the bank, hasn’t she?
Right in front of the house
you must be looking out for someone-
who will help you with
to straighten the river,
to fill her holes with