What Do We Want a Post-Pandemic Myanmar to Look Like?

By Aung Zaw 29 May 2020

Myanmar’s good fortune appears to be holding in terms of COVID-19; the country has seen relatively few infections and fatalities so far. According to the Ministry of Health and Sports, as of Friday, a total of 207 COVID-19 cases had been reported, including six deaths and 130 recoveries. But a deeper question haunts this apparent success story. How well prepared are we to reshape Myanmar in the post-COVID era?

The government is preparing to spend US$3-3.5 billion (4.17-4.86 trillion kyats)—or up to 5 percent of Myanmar’s GDP of more than $70 billion—to help the economy recover from the blow it has been dealt by COVID-19. The planned stimulus spending targets economic recovery, social security and an upgrade for the health-care sector.

Watching other countries try to deal with the impacts of the outbreak, it is clear that much uncertainty lies ahead, but these challenges also present opportunities. It is imperative that Myanmar’s leaders and citizens rise to these challenges and develop a vision for the country’s post-pandemic future.

State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi holds weekly online discussions with health workers, government officials, labor union leaders and MPs about Myanmar’s response to the virus.

And for their part, Myanmar’s military leaders have reached out to insurgents in ethnic areas, providing COVID-related assistance, including testing kits, and pledging continued cooperation on fighting the coronavirus on the ground.

State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi holds a regular online video-conference with officials and volunteers fighting COVID-19 on May 29, 2020. / Myanmar State Counselor’s Office

Two weeks ago, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing met leaders of the United Wa State Army and the National Democratic Alliance Army at the headquarters of the Myanmar military’s Triangle Region Command in eastern Shan State. He said the military would provide assistance to the armed groups in handling COVID-19-related health issues.

To be sure, it’s heartening to see such cooperation and assistance, including the distribution of surgical masks, N95 face masks, face shields and hand-sanitizing gel; and we have seen ordinary Myanmar people—with characteristic generosity—providing food and relief packages to poor families and those who have lost their jobs.

However, so far we have heard little from national leaders and government officials about the future—about the need for a sustainable economy and environmental protection, or about whether Myanmar should reassess the way it treats the environment and try to reverse the ecological damage that has been done so far.

Since the pandemic started we have heard much discussion of the way some viruses can jump from animals to humans; it has been speculated that the coronavirus outbreak emerged from a wildlife market in Wuhan, China, and bats and pangolins have featured prominently in international news stories.

Deadly viruses such as those that cause SARS, MERS, bird flu and swine flu all jumped from animals to humans, unleashing deadly outbreaks.

The coronavirus, many in Myanmar say, is nature’s way of venting her fury, of taking her revenge on mankind.

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing gives COVID-19-related aid to Wa leaders at the Tatmadaw’s Triangle Command on May 10, 2020. / Office of the Commander-in-Chief

Then, what sort of relationship should we seek with nature?

Like the rest of the world, Myanmar has shown little respect for nature. As we have destroyed natural habitats to make room for more roads and infrastructure, more mines, factories and farmland, we have witnessed more deadly viruses reaching our cities. By clearing the forest wilderness we deprive wild animals of their habitat and force them into ever greater proximity with us, making the transmission of diseases from animals to humans more likely.

In the three decades since the 1988 military coup, Myanmar has witnessed a rapid acceleration in forest depletion, mine excavation and fishery development. Myanmar is not a poor country: We are rich in gemstones, jade, rubies, gold, minerals, rivers and deep forests.

But who controls this wealth?

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s country report on Myanmar, “Minerals and mineral-related products made up 23 percent of Burmese exports in 2018, representing the largest share of any category. These predominantly consist of valuable gemstones, such as jade and ruby, as well as industrial and metallic minerals.”

It continues: “According to government estimates, Myanmar produces between 70 percent to 90 percent of the world’s jade, and ranks fourth globally for ruby production. A majority of these gems are exported for jewelry manufacturing to regional markets, often through informal smuggling. Historically, this has facilitated corruption among army officials involved in the gemstone supply chain: according to Global Witness, an international non-government organization, US$31 billion worth of jade was seized by military elites in 2014—almost half the country’s GDP that year.”

Let’s not mince words: We know that a handful of greedy bastards in Myanmar have made fortunes by raping the environment. The elite men in uniform, ethnic rebel leaders, local tycoons and voracious businessmen from neighboring countries have collaborated to raze green forests, extract precious stones, pollute rivers and clear jungles to build enormous dams.

The contribution of our country’s vast mines, fisheries and forests to Myanmar’s economy is under threat. The mismanagement of natural resources no doubt undermines sustainable development in Myanmar.

This mismanagement and exploitation is further exacerbated by climate change. On paper the government recognizes that a clean environment, with healthy and functioning ecosystems, is the foundation upon which the country’s social, cultural and economic development must be sustained; thus there is a national development framework that incorporates the notion of environmental sustainability for future generations by systematically embedding environmental and climate considerations into all future policies and projects. In reality, many fundamental issues remained unaddressed.

Rescue workers look for bodies of miners killed by a landslide in a Hpakant jade mine in Kachin State, Myanmar, on Nov. 24, 2015. / REUTERS

You will have to excuse me here while I quote the United Nations on this subject. (Occasionally this institution’s puffed-up statements actually get it right.) According to the UN, “Myanmar is widely considered one of the most vulnerable countries in the world in terms of the impacts of climate change. More intense and frequent floods, cyclones and droughts have caused immense loss of life and damage to infrastructure and the economy and put its renowned biodiversity and natural resources under increasing pressure.”

So as we grapple with the pandemic, we must also address the issue of climate change, whose consequences are now clearly visible around the country, which has seen an increase in the frequency of severe flooding, disastrous tropical storms and other natural disasters in recent years. It should be treated as nothing less than a national emergency.

In an interview with The Irrawaddy two weeks ago, historian Thant Myint-U said, “We have as well the near-overwhelming challenges of climate change. This pandemic adds yet another layer of uncertainty. Myanmar needs to see clearly the ways in which the world is changing and radically rethink its future options.”

As Myanmar plans its recovery from the pandemic and the current economic crisis, its goal should be a sustainable economy that creates jobs while delivering greater equality and improved health care.

Infrastructure and other mega-investment projects should be climate-friendly; a good place to start would be for all of us to treat nature and the environment as our friends and family members. This pandemic in fact offers us a chance to reset our future course, assuming we have sufficient vision to recognize it.

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