Aung San Suu Kyi – Environment

Aung San Suu Kyi

Climate change certainly is a catastrophe that will affect all corners of the world. However, certain countries -like that of Myanmar- will be greatly more affected than others due to their geographical susceptibility to environmental changes. This negative impact has already started to be seen in Myanmar, and it threatens to destabilize the fragile balance of one of the countries with the highest biodiversity in the world. 

Despite these threats, the governing class of Myanmar has been reticent to take proper action against climate change. Due to Suu’s past alleged principles and priorities, it was highly expected of her to approach this problem directly and efficiently. But it could not be further from the truth.

Climate Change in Myanmar

Myanmar is internationally recognized as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. It contains 15 biodiversity corridors and hosts numerous species unique to Southeast Asia. During the past few years alone, more than 40 animal species were discovered in this country. Unfortunately, Myanmar’s emphasis on economic development and the global reticence towards environmental-friendly policies, has left this country heavily affected by climate change. Myanmar is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, and it has already suffered its consequences in the shape of increased severe cyclones -like that of 2008, which killed more than 140,000 people-, or rising sea levels that will likely submerge most of the coastline (including Rangoon) within a generation. Moreover, in the past few years Myanmar has experienced dangerous rainfall variability, heavy flooding, earthquakes and extreme high temperatures.

Certainly, most of these catastrophes suffered by Myanmar have been caused by the aggregate and historical global incapacity to respond to the climate crisis. Nonetheless, Myanmar has also not actively pursued sustainable growth and environmental policies to reduce its detrimental influence in the environment. In 2016 it was ranked as 153/180 countries in the Environmental Performance Index, as over the last decade it has persistently prioritized economic development over environmental health.

For instance, Burmese forests have been obliterated as the country uses the territories for agriculture and urban building, and we can observe that from the time of Burmese independence to 2014, the forests of the country went from covering 70% of the territory, to 48%. Similarly, as the country tries to foster its jade exports, miners have altered the natural constituency of jade mines to such an extent that landslides have become a national emergency. For instance, in early July 2020 a single landslide caused the death of more than 170 Burmese miners.

It is in the hands of the Burmese government to foster stricter and more effective environmental policies in order to save Myanmar from the horrid threats of climate change. Unfortunately, in this aspect, Suu’s leadership has not lived up to expectations.

Suu’s Approach

Before Suu became the State Counselor, she demanded the government in place for better environmental policies, and achieved success in some aspects. For instance, in 2011 she led people advocating against the Myitsone Dam Project, and was able to halt its continuation. This project was one of the greatest Chinese investment projects approved by the military junta, and even though it was supposed to bring great economic opportunities, it also meant that an area the size of Singapore would be flooded, that 12,000 people would be forced to reallocate, and that the Irrawaddy river would suffer irreparable damage. However, ever since she stepped into power in 2015, her priorities have clearly changed.

Suu’s government took an entire year to create an official body to address environmental issues, which is known as the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment Conservation, and which has not been very proactive in tackling the climate concerns. According to the World Bank, the ongoing agenda for reform can be summarized in the Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan and the Natural Environment Policy. Neither of these outlines a precise action plan to tackle the core issues of climate change, but rather outline vague intentions by Suu’s government.

In the case of MSDP, environmental action is one of the 5 broad goals mentioned in the document, and Suu doesn’t even reference it in the foreword. In the case of the NEP, it is a document that simply builds on the military regime’s impractical environmental policies. We can also observe Suu’s lack of enthusiasm for the subject as we observe that between 2017 and 2018 the budget for this environmental improvement remained under USD 2mn. The World Bank has pushed forward Environmental Impact Assessments, Environment Management Plans and Initial Environment Examinations, but since early 2019, only 6,9% have been approved.

Overall, Suu has not been highly active on the climate action front, and when guidelines or strategies to tackle the issue were passed, they have lacked the sufficient precision and measurability to ensure that they are acted upon. Consequently, climate action has been pushed forward by UN-fostered groups such as the Myanmar Climate Conservation Alliance, or by foreign actors such as Wildlife Conservation Society. But the time has come for governments to realize that environmental protection is a necessary and achievable effort that must be encouraged and promoted by the top of the hierarchy rather than by the bottom, and the time has come for Suu’s government to realize that its metta principle must be applied for concepts beyond its own existence.