Education in MyanmarWith the junta taking control of schools, education in Myanmar is one sector that suffers greatly, particularly in rural areas where the military crackdown is the most violent. However, teachers and parents in these areas have found ways to keep their kids educated while still standing against military rule.

Military Rule

In February 2021, Myanmar’s Tatmadaw staged a coup and declared military rule, and claimed that the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) win in the November 2020 general election was illegitimate. The civil war and rife with humanitarian crises are still a part of everyday life in Myanmar. As of September 2022, over 2,000 civilians have been killed and more than 15,000 have been arrested. Adding on to the crisis, the kyat is also at an all-time low. Numerous workers and public servants have opposed junta rule through strikes and boycotts under the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). This has taken a toll on the availability of resources and public services across the country, but much of Myanmar’s population perseveres through this toilsome protest for the sake of democracy.

Threats to Education

In 2020, the government canceled schools and universities for a year due to the pandemic. Upon reopening last June, only 10% of students enrolled again, as many took part in the movement against a “military slave education.” The education ministry of the exiled National Unity Government supported the movement. On April 26, the group encouraged education staff not to return to university or school until the junta has been ousted.

In March 2022, the Myanmar Teacher’s Federation estimated that three-quarters of education ministry staff were participating in the CDM. Many have gone into hiding for fear of arrest – the junta has killed at least three teachers and five students.  Direct danger has also deterred parents from sending their children to school, with Save the Children stating that there have been at least 260 attacks on schools between May 2021 and April 2022.

More recently, a junta attack on a Township school in the Sagaing Region left 11 children dead and many others injured. The U.N. Secretary-General condemned this attack, stating: “even in times of armed conflict, schools must remain areas in which children are granted protection and a safe place to learn.”

COVID-19 closures followed by CDM strikes have effectively taken two years off children’s school lives. Although the military regime persists, communities are persistent in not canceling a third year of education in Myanmar by establishing new school systems outside the Tatdmadaw administration.

Efforts to Keep Kids in School

Myanmar’s eastern Karenni State has seen 170,000 people internally displaced, with the military combating resistance forces through airstrikes and artillery fire, according to The New Humanitarian. Amidst the violence, the Karenni Education Department is running 129 schools under an ethnic revolutionary organization and is currently educating more than 12,000 students. Despite a lack of funding and resources, the schools continue to persist in former government schools and churches. Volunteer teachers typically run the schools and and furnish them with tables and chairs made of bamboo. In areas without buildings, some schools even make do outdoors.

Similar scenes are unfolding in the northwestern Sagaing region, where the junta burned villages and killed civilians, but these schools stay open under the National Unity Government. A teacher at one of the 148 schools running in the Kani township claims that military attacks lead to teachers and students often having to hide in forests for days at a time. He says, “While we are fleeing, we cannot teach formally; we can only teach stories and poems to younger children,” The New Humanitarian reports.

With the Tatmadaw holding its power tight, Myanmar’s journey back to democracy will be arduous and bloody. However, citizens refuse to give up their fight and refuse to sacrifice children’s school lives along the way. This is exemplified by the actions of rural communities that are finding ways to protect education in Myanmar amidst mass boycotts and civil war.

– Imogen Scott
Photo: Flickr

Energy Poverty in Myanmar
Located in Southeast Asia, Myanmar stands as one of the least developed countries and has the “lowest electrification rate” on the continent. According to the Myanmar Information Management Unit (MIMU) in 2022, “80[%]of rural people have no access to grid electricity.” Considering the importance of electricity for sustainable growth, access to electricity is vital for poverty reduction. Inadequate electrification in Myanmar is a prolonged problem, recently aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the February 2021 coup. Myanmar needs more sustainable approaches to reduce energy poverty in Myanmar and promote economic growth.

Overview of Energy Poverty in Myanmar

Due to the lack of access to grid electricity in the rural areas of Myanmar, most of the rural population depend on “candles, kerosene, batteries and power generators” to go about their daily activities, according to the International Trade Administration.

According to the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, approximately 26% of the population in Myanmar lived in poverty in 2020. Furthermore, poverty rates in rural areas are double that of Myanmar’s urban areas. The lack of affordable and reliable access to electricity has hindered the economic growth of these areas especially.

According to the Miller Center, “Universal access to energy [can] provide an enormous boost to economic development, job creation and infrastructure improvements, particularly in rural communities.” Myanmar has set a target to expand access to electricity to 100% by 2030. However, the February 2021 coup “has thrown Myanmar into an economic crisis and put its electrification plans in peril,” The Globe and Mail reported.

Impact of the Military Regime in Myanmar

In February 2021, General Min Aung Hlaing and his junta overthrew the democratically elected government. The military takeover has led to halted cash flows, a devaluation of the currency and increasing costs for fuel and food. In addition, citizens face blackouts and “prolonged power cuts.” Not only does this impact households but it also detrimentally impacts businesses and students’ education.

When the coup occurred, many energy sector investors retracted from projects entirely or placed projects on pause. As a result, the military-run Ministry of Electricity and Energy “struggled to operate its infrastructure, honor contractual obligations, cover costs or follow through on projects,” The Globe and Mail reported.

The International Trade Administration confirmed this, stating that “Energy projects approved before the military takeover have been suspended due to the political and economic turmoil in the country.” As such, Myanmar is in dire need of foreign funding and investment in the power sector.

Actions to Address Energy Poverty in Myanmar

According to the Ministry of Electric Power (MOEP), the annual demand for power in Myanmar is rising annually from 15% to 17%. With the goal of providing “nationwide electricity access by the year 2030,” the government of Myanmar is planning to introduce a sustainable energy mix of “hydropower, natural gas, coal and renewable energy” to supply electricity to about 10 million homes in Myanmar under the National Electrification Plan (NEP).

Because of numerous electricity blackouts due to power decline since early 2022, the energy ministry in Myanmar started to focus on “damage control” and “attracting new foreign investment.”

In fact, Myanmar has an abundance of renewable energy resources to meet its energy needs. For instance, from 2016 to 2020, under the NEP plan, the Department of Rural Development (DRD) implemented “off-grid electrification” by using mini-grids and solar systems in rural communities. More than 430,000 households in 8,568 rural villages received these benefits, which provided electrical access to more than 2.1 million people. This success has encouraged Myanmar to expand off-grid renewable systems.

Nevertheless, political and economic turmoil under the military regime in Myanmar is causing power outages that directly impact the population, especially in rural areas. Also, “unsettled political and economic policies, unclear rules and guidelines and a shortage of skilled labor” as well as “corruption, lack of transparency in the tender and procurement process and banking issues” pose barriers for potential investors, the International Trade Administration said.

More investment in off-grid renewable energy sources can increase the accessibility of electricity in Myanmar. Because the national grid infrastructure in Myanmar is not well established, rural communities will benefit from the development of renewable mini-grids. The development of further off-grid renewable electrification systems will decrease energy poverty in Myanmar.

– Youngwook Chun
Photo: Flickr

Hunger Crisis in MyanmarOngoing crises throughout the world such as inflation and social unrest have left many of the poorest populations in even more vulnerable situations. Myanmar is an example of one country that is grappling with numerous crises resulting in a dramatic rise in hunger levels. Here are five things to know about the hunger crisis in Myanmar.

5 Things to Know About the Hunger Crisis in Myanmar

  1. Political Takeover: In February 2021, the former ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), was overthrown by the military in a coup de tat. The civil unrest initially started with peaceful protests but gradually escalated to riots and, subsequently, a retaliatory response by the military. The situation progressed to the point where the military was destroying whole towns at any sign of dissidence. This unstable political state displaced over 1 million people and forced millions more into poverty.
  2. Food Shortages: The need for humanitarian aid in Myanmar has grown at an exponential rate since the military coup. As of 2022, more than 25% of people in the country are food insecure. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), 13.2 million Burmese do not know where their next meal will come from and the food that they do get is insufficient in meeting their nutritional needs.
  3. Impact of the Pandemic: Myanmar is still reeling from the economic impact of COVID-19. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the nation lost between 6.4 and 9.0 trillion Kyat ($3.04 billion and $4.29 billion) due to a lack of production in 2020. To compound the effect, the World Bank projected the economy contracted by 18% in 2021. These economic pitfalls have played significantly into the ongoing hunger crisis in Myanmar.
  4. Children: The hunger crisis plaguing the nation especially affects children. The U.N. reports almost 8 million children are out of school across Myanmar and 250,000 are internally displaced. In addition, roughly 33,000 could die in 2022 due to preventable causes such as lack of immunizations and malnutrition. Furthermore, children also end up as political ploys with hundreds currently being held as political prisoners. In addition, over 1,400 children faced arrest without justifiable cause since the 2021 coup.
  5. International Aid: The international community has acknowledged that the crisis in Myanmar is far from over. In March 2022, the United States pledged $152 million to help alleviate the suffering of countless Burmese. Myanmar will allocate this funding to the provision of basic needs and help the displaced individuals find their way back home.

Food crises continue to run rampant across the world. The road ahead is not smooth or easily traversable by any means, but countries and organizations remain committed to providing aid to those in dire circumstances. As long as there is awareness, there is hope.

– Alex Peterson
Photo: Flickr

Myanmar’s Internet Shutdowns
Myanmar’s community and economy suffer from the ongoing impacts of the military coup that occurred on February 1, 2021. Since 2021, Myanmar has imposed internet shutdowns in the country. In 2021, internet shutdowns across the world led to a global loss of $5.45 billion. Myanmar accounts for a significant portion of this loss, as Myanmar’s internet shutdowns in 2021 cost $2.8 billion. The junta regime established changes to the legal code that negate basic international human rights protections. This includes the amendment of the Electronic Transaction Law. With this, the current government in Myanmar prevents the “free flow of information and criminalizes the dissemination of information through cyberspace.”

Myanmar’s Internet Shutdowns

To curb protests, the military junta instigated total internet blackouts and social media blocks as well as slowed internet speeds to levels where only simple text-based communication was possible. The enforced shutdowns impacted several networks, “including international operators and cellular services.” As a result, people cannot access important COVID-19 information, businesses that rely on the internet cannot operate and reporters cannot give news updates. 

Considering the imposed internet outage cost Myanmar $2.8 billion in 2021, this amounts to the greatest economic loss worldwide in this category. The nation’s weak economy is “30% smaller than it might have been in the absence of COVID-19 and the February 2021 coup,” according to the World Bank.

Effect on Poverty

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated the decline of 1.6 million jobs in 2021. The situation has led some Myanmarese people to resort to exchanging their mobile phones for food. The regime increased internet prices, making online schools and digital medical services financially burdensome or unaffordable.

Business Repercussions

Businesses rely on the internet to maximize sales and remain competitive. In Myanmar, however, the disrupted, costly and slow internet contributes to the decline in overall income and employment. For example, internet outages prevented farms from researching prices online and devastated thousands of small internet businesses. Low income and unemployment perpetuate low domestic demand. An insufficient consumer base feeds the stagnation or failure of local industries. The overall instability in Myanmar has affected businesses‘ “operations, logistics, confidence and appetite to invest.”

USAID’s Contributions

Despite restrictions, Myanmar’s internet penetration continues to grow in part due to international efforts. The U.S. has provided close to $500 million in aid to struggling citizens within Myanmar as well as Myanmarese refugees in other nations. This assistance also involves $24 million worth of COVID-19-related aid. 

Through USAID, the U.S. is helping communities in Myanmar. To help alleviate the repression of basic freedoms, “USAID has trained 255 independent media outlets on unbiased reporting [and] strengthened the capacity of 235 civil society organizations to advocate for democratic reforms.”

In addition, USAID’s new Digital Strategy aims to empower millions to rise out of poverty by leveraging digital technology to ignite economic development in countries. The Digital Strategy aims to “improve development and humanitarian assistance outcomes through the use of digital technology” while encouraging “inclusive growth, [fostering] resilient and democratic societies and [empowering] all, including the most vulnerable.”

Remedial social investment is necessary for Myanmar’s sharply contracting economy. Self-sustainable poverty reduction is not yet a reality as military leadership reversed efforts toward democratic reforms and expelled freedoms to the internet.

– Anna Zawistowski
Photo: Flickr

Myanmar's Military Junta
This article will cover the recent political executions by Myanmar’s military junta, as well as reactions from the international community and demonstrations that are still ongoing, despite the possibilities of further executions. Burmese hip-hop artist Phyo Zeya Thaw was among those the Burmese government executed, due to his support of the resistance. These political executions were the first ones that Myanmar had in decades.

Burmese Resistance to the Junta

The National Unity Government (NUG) has spearheaded Burmese efforts to oust the military junta from power. It was also the first organization to call for international condemnation of the nation’s recent executions.

United Nations Statements

U.N. Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet condemned the executions, calling them “cruel” and “regressive.” The military junta has killed more than 2,100 Burmese citizens since it came into power, which has led many U.N. leaders to call for formal international sanctioning. The U.N. also urged Myanmar’s military junta to release political prisoners that have been awaiting trials via military tribunal. However, similar U.N. pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Since the junta took over in a 2021 coup d’état, the military courts sentenced 115 Burmese adults and two children to death.

A Bipartisan Condemnation from the US

Both prominent Republican and Democratic leaders in the American government condemned the junta’s recent executions. In its official statement, the White House labeled the recent incident as a “heinous execution.” Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called for sanctions on the Burmese energy sector, as well as further actions from Myanmar’s neighboring countries. In a U.S. Department of State press statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken also criticized the military junta for its “sham trials” of pro-democracy activists. American officials have also urged the Chinese government to play a more active role in promoting peace among the junta and Burmese citizens.

European Response

The European Union, along with several other industrialized nations, including Australia, Canada and South Korea released a statement condemning the junta’s rule. Before the political executions, the EU sanctioned junta officials and required European energy companies to withdraw their operations in Myanmar.

Myanmar’s Neighbors Respond

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an inter-governmental organization that Myanmar is a member of, released a statement calling the executions reprehensible, as well as urging for dialogue among the Burmese. The ASEAN has also banned Myanmar’s junta officials from attending events that the association hosts. In contrast to the ASEAN’s strong rebuke of Myanmar’s executions, the Chinese government has yet to make a statement condemning the actions. However, China did push for peace talks between the junta and Burmese resistance groups in early July 2022, weeks before the political executions. By supplying weapons and giving the nation its political support, China has aligned with the coup leaders in Myanmar.

The Push for Further Action

Although many nations have placed sanctions on Myanmar, there have been no formally coordinated strategies put in place to sanction Myanmar and punish those in power for their breach of human rights. According to the World Bank’s July 2022 estimates, approximately 40% of Burmese citizens live in poverty. Economic contractions that occurred after the 2021 coup could have long-term consequences since the Burmese economy experienced an 18% contraction during the 2021 fiscal year. Myanmar’s slip away from democracy has caused economic turmoil and the juntas depriving of human rights is an issue that the international community must address.

– Salvatore Brancato
Photo: Flickr

Human Trafficking in Myanmar
Human Trafficking In Myanmar and surrounding countries such as Thailand, China and Laos have historically struggled to contain trafficking throughout the region of Southeast Asia. This crisis has escalated since the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s Army) overthrew the democratically elected members of the National League for Democracy party in early February 2021. As of 2022, the United Nations estimates there are 1.2 million refugees and asylum seekers in Myanmar, nearly half of whom are children.

Regional Instability

As the world watched in disbelief as the fabric of democracy fell apart within Myanmar, many overlooked an already serious problem that had plagued the country – human trafficking.

Human trafficking in Myanmar has always been a prevalent issue. However, the recent conflict has created thousands of desperate refugees giving human traffickers an abundant amount of targets. In fact, the United Nations estimates that there are some 440,000 internally displaced people since the coup took place.

According to the 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report by the U.S. Department of State, “The international monitor-verified use of children in labor and support roles by certain military battalions increased in conflict zones.” The report indicates that the coup combined with the COVID-19 pandemic has led to reporting far fewer trafficking cases making it difficult to estimate exact figures.

Globally human trafficking has become a booming business for criminals. Some estimates predict it has become one of the world’s most profitable organized crimes, bringing in more than $150 billion globally a year. According to the Walk Free Foundation’s Global Slavery Index, two-thirds of its victims are in East Asia and the Pacific.

Where Trafficking Victims Go

Human traffickers often deceive victims with the promises of high-paying jobs in surrounding countries in fields such as construction, agriculture and hospitality. Approximately 600,000 immigrants from Myanmar are legally registered to work in Thailand. However, many more are there working illegally in underpaid inhumane working conditions in industries such as fishing, factories, agriculture and sex work. Reports estimate that “out of 1 million illegal immigrants in Thailand, 75% are from Myanmar.”

Myanmar has been a hotbed for human trafficking for years due to political instability, natural disasters and internal ethnic infighting leading to a massive lack of opportunity for its populace. Since the coup took place, the number of individuals at risk of trafficking has skyrocketed. Despite this, there has been a notable decline in the population reporting trafficking cases due to the distrust between the populace and government forces.

Thailand is not the only country for the victims. Traffickers move many young women out of Myanmar and bring them to China where there is a large market for young women for the purposes of birth trafficking. Many of these women are from the Kachin State, a predominantly Muslim and Christian minority located in Myanmar’s northernmost regions bordering China. The practice of smuggling women to another country for the purpose of marriage and childbearing has become more common as experts point out how China’s “one-child policy” preference towards boys created a massive gender ratio gap resulting in millions of unmarried young men.

According to a report from John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that surveyed four northern districts in Myanmar, there are more than 7,400 victims of forced marriage in China. “Victims of forced marriage suffer a range of rights violations and exposure to physical and psychological risks,” said Courtland Robinson, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of International Health at the Bloomberg School. The true number of Myanmarese women trafficked into China is likely far higher due to only four districts (out of 74) examined in the study as well as this study dating back to 2017 and 2018, three years prior to the military coup.

Causes

When examining the root of human trafficking in Myanmar, the two largest causes would be poverty and political instability. The recent conflict has only exacerbated the flood of refugees making it easier for traffickers to take advantage of desperate people. Military control over Myanmar’s government has resulted in the loss of practically all trust between the government and the populace, creating a need for NGOs and other nonprofits to step in and provide aid.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is an NGO that has been operating in Myanmar since 2008 and continues to provide aid such as health care, water and sanitation services, career training and support for community development projects.

The IRC primarily operates in Myanmar’s most at-risk and remote regions such as Rakhine, Chin and Shan states. Some strategies the IRC uses to bring stability to the region include; teaching farmers modern agricultural techniques and technologies, assisting communities in the development of projects such as schools and health care centers and operating women and girls’ centers to support survivors of trafficking violence. The IRC also provides aid to thousands of refugees located in nine camps across the Thai border. The International Rescue Committee’s goal in Myanmar is to eventually stabilize the region through implementing infrastructure assistance.

With no assistance from the government and minimal response from members of the international community, the importance of NGOs and nonprofits operating in Myanmar is huge. As regional instability increases and the armed conflict continues, more people in Myanmar become displaced and are at risk of becoming trafficking victims every day. However, with the support of NGOs and nonprofits that are taking proactive and reactive measures to stabilize Myanmar, human trafficking in Myanmar can reduce.

– Michael McShane
Photo: Flickr

Myanmar’s Gemstone IndustryMyanmar, previously known as Burma, is a country flourishing in high-quality gemstones and other precious stones that bring a rise in income to the nation. Despite the quantity and quality of stones naturally produced, corruption and mismanagement in Myanmar’s mining industry as well as a weak political system lead to the ongoing cycle of both environmental and economic deterioration, also known as the “resource curse.” Myanmar’s gemstone industry has caused instability and conflict rather than improving the quality of life for citizens and providing additional employment to the country. This is also the main reason Myanmar remains economically underdeveloped.

Myanmar’s Deadly Landslides

On February 28, 2022, a landslide from mines in Myanmar’s town of Hpakant buried dozens of scavengers and miners in search of jade stones. Some official media sources confirmed two deaths, while aid workers and residents claimed a minimum of 23 deaths that day and an additional 80 missing individuals. This is an additional indication of the obstructive corruption occurring in the country.

Myanmar’s Current Poverty Conditions

In 2021, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) predicted that by 2022, 48.2% of Myanmar’s population could end up living in poverty compared to 24.8% living in poverty in 2017. Those living in poverty survive on 1,590 kyats daily, which is equivalent to $1 per day. Because Myanmar is a resource-rich nation, the country has significant potential for reducing poverty rates throughout the nation, yet, only a few individuals share in the revenue that comes from Myanmar’s gemstone industry. Locals do not benefit from the wealth the gemstones bring to the country.

Corruption in the Gemstone Mining Industry

Corruption is rife in Myanmar’s gemstone mining industry. Mining companies must pay a permit fee to the Mynamar mining industry to secure a mining permit. However, these figures are undisclosed and companies have to sign confidentiality agreements with authorities that must not be revealed to others. Failure to provide illicit payments to the ministry and local authorities can lead to delays in permits. Although the laws remain, all mining licenses in the township of Hpakant expired in 2019 and 2020, but mining still continues.

Gemstones Galore

Hpakant, a town rich in many types of gemstones and precious stones, contributes to Myanmar’s gemstone industry the most. In these mines quartz, jade, amber, chrysoberyl, sapphire, moonstone, topaz, diamonds, tourmaline, peridot, garnet and ruby are a few of the many types of stones that miners can find.

However, many ethnic minority groups have to compete with Myanmar’s armed government to proceed to mine. This means resources fall into the hands of only a select few, increasing both inequality and poverty across the nation.

Global Economic Assistance

Myanmar is struggling with a severe economic downturn as more than 20 million people, in 2021, endured poverty. The United Nations has about 2,500 people working in Myanmar to provide those in poverty with assistance. About 1.7 million people received cash and food aid from the U.N. in 2021. But, even the U.N. is facing monetary shortfalls and is having trouble reaching those who need assistance as permission is necessary to travel to certain areas. The U.N. describes this permission process as “long, lengthy and bureaucratic.”

Establishing Change

Certain human rights activists are asserting that many major jewelers should not proceed in buying gems from Myanmar as a way of applying “pressure on Myanmar’s military leaders by limiting profits from the country’s lucrative mining industry.”

Rep. Gregory Meeks introduced the Burma Act of 2021, which forbids any imports of Myanmar’s gemstones to the U.S. Popular jewelry companies such as Tiffany & Co., Harry Winston, Kay Jewelers, Jared and Zales have also declared that they will not purchase any gemstones sourced from Myanmar. The House of Representatives passed the Burma Act of 2021 on April 6, 2022.

Since 2015, more than 500 deaths have come about through landslides in Myanmar, with many of these landslides stemming from mines.

The attempt to call on the international community to halt purchases of gemstones from Myanmar is a step in the right direction as it limits the profit that the Myanmar government yields. With the help of the U.S. Congress and various human rights activists, Burmese people may look to a brighter future.

– Christina Papas
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Refugees in Thailand
In February 2021, a military coup in Myanmar removed the country’s democratically-elected President from power and instated an autocratic regime that the Tatmadaw controlled. In response, citizens organized massive protests against the military institution which continued into 2022. Politicians and reporters have given Myanmar significant attention following the political upheaval, as refugees leave in droves to neighboring countries like Thailand, continuing a migration trend that has persisted for decades. Additionally, as of January 2022, UNHCR has estimated that there were 91,408 Myanmar refugees in Thailand. However, crossing the border is not a solution in and of itself, especially since Thailand’s government offers limited protections to those seeking asylum.

The Dynamics Between Myanmar-Thailand

Myanmar is far from the only dictatorship in Southeast Asia. Thailand shares a fluctuating political record. Despite ongoing student protests, the current “semi-democratic” regime allows the monarchy and military to maintain a tight grip on domestic politics. Not only has the government subjugated its own people, but it exacerbated the poor conditions of refugees in Thailand.

In addition to certain political similarities, the leaders of the Tatmadaw and the Royal Thai Army have worked together to govern illegal activities along their shared border. Additionally, unlike other Southeast Asian countries, which have largely condemned the junta in Myanmar, Thailand has committed to a diplomatic approach to its conflict-ridden neighbor and has “refrained from criticizing the junta” despite its human rights abuses, according to The Diplomat. This dynamic also shows through the close relationship between Myanmar’s coup leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and the late president of Thailand’s Privy Council, General Prem Tinsulanonda.

Thailand’s Treatment of Myanmar Refugees

Since the nature of Thailand’s government, people fleeing Myanmar receive no guarantee of personal safety. Refugees are unable to legally work, leaving them wholly dependent on aid and the camps where they live lack necessary resources including food, education and health services. On top of that, Thailand’s Immigration Act categorizes all refugees in Thailand as illegal immigrants, which makes them vulnerable to arrest and deportation regardless of international norms, according to UNHCR.

As a result, Thailand has sent thousands back to Myanmar. This number includes a group of more than 3,000 who had settled in tents on the Thai side of the Thaung Yin River. These people involuntarily returned to Myanmar territory, where they could face political or ethnic persecution on top of poor living conditions with limited access to clean food and water.

While the close ties between Thailand and Myanmar’s governments coincide with their shared human trafficking agreements, both states exclude Rohingya migrants from their policies. This creates an environment rife with human trafficking in both states, as government officials knowingly and illegally traffic refugees into third countries.

Solutions

The international community could take action to protect those fleeing Myanmar, and in some ways, it already has. A joint statement from several aid agencies called on international governments and organizations to meet the needs of Myanmar citizens and refugees. The statement drew attention to all the displaced people and asylum-seekers lacking shelter, food, water and other basic needs. It also called on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Thailand is a founding member, to “formulate a clear action plan” that would lead to “the immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar,” according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

Furthermore, UNHCR urged Thailand to extend greater humanitarian aid to asylum-seekers in its borders and offered assistance, as did several humanitarian non-government organizations.

In addition, the U.S. Senate is currently deliberating the BURMA Act of 2021, or S.2937, which would protect refugees’ basic rights, provide access to higher education in refugees in Thailand and provide humanitarian aid to social and ethnic groups in Myanmar and Thailand. The U.S. has already led bipartisan efforts to encourage democracy in Myanmar and it seems that it will continue to do so in 2022.

– Lauren Sung
Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Drug Trade in Myanmar
The drug trade in Myanmar is a critical contributing factor to poverty in the country. However, the relationship between the drug trade and poverty in Myanmar is very nuanced and complex. Factors such as decades of civil war, the military coup and foreign economic sanctions create complications in addressing the relationship between poverty and narcotics.

The Drug Trade in Myanmar

The drug trade in Myanmar is both a large-scale and persistent problem. Myanmar is central to the narcotics trade throughout Southeast Asia. In fact, Myanmar is one of the largest producers of synthetic drugs in the world. Along with ongoing conflicts, the drug trade is an issue that the country has grappled with for decades.

The lack of development and economic opportunity within the nation is an essential contributing factor to the scale of the drug trade in Myanmar. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recognizes that lack of rural development means few viable economic alternatives for impoverished rural communities other than engaging in the drug trade.

UNODC recognizes that creating jobs and other industries in rural areas stands as a potential solution for mitigating the drug trade. By providing alternative forms of income to Myanmar’s rural impoverished, it would be less necessary for people to rely upon drug production for income.

In an interview with The Borgen Project, the director of Counter-Narcotics Interdiction Partnerships at Rigaku Analytical Devices and former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) attaché to the Myanmar government from 2017 to 2019, Michael Brown, discussed the relationship between narcotics and poverty. Brown noted that the lack of economic development and the prevalence of the drug trade in Myanmar are two of the central pillars of instability and poverty in the country.

Conflict, Coup and the Drug Trade

Decades of conflict in Myanmar play a central role in the prevalence of the widespread drug trade in the country. Brown discusses how many of the armed groups fighting the government of Myanmar have become heavily reliant on the drug trade. Essentially, armed groups utilize the drug trade in Myanmar to support their war efforts against the government.

In addition, much of the country’s most productive regions for drugs are directly under the control of various armed groups. Armed groups view poppy fields and synthetic drug laboratories as a vital economic resource. Brown also told The Borgen Project that some of these armed groups have essentially abandoned their initial political motivations for fighting the government of Myanmar. Instead, the groups have shifted their focus to operating as criminal organizations that focus on drug production and distribution activities.

The coup that occurred in February 2021 has also created complications in addressing poverty and the drug trade in Myanmar. Political instability from the most recent coup significantly compromises the ability of the nation to combat the issue of the drug trade. Additionally, much of the international community has levied sanctions on Myanmar, creating economic upheavals that the U.N. predicts will drive more people into the drug trade to make ends meet. Brown also noted that the military could no longer focus on combating the drug trade as its first priority is maintaining the military government’s rule.

Poverty and the Impact of COVID-19

The pandemic also heavily impacts the relationship between poverty and the drug trade in Myanmar. Much like the economic sanctions stemming from the coup, the pandemic has created economic upheavals that could make the drug trade more appealing to those seeking to make ends meet. Since the onset of the pandemic, more than 80% of families have reported a loss of income. Rising food and fuel prices also undermine food security.

Efforts to Help

Brown explains that the coup and the following economic sanctions against Myanmar make it more difficult for the international community to help the nation combat poverty or the drug trade. Despite this, he discusses that the U.S. DEA, U.S. companies such as Rigaku and law enforcement in Myanmar have worked together successfully in the past to combat the drug trade in Myanmar. For example, several years ago, Operation Viper successfully curtailed the flow of precursor chemicals into the country essential to synthetic drug production.

To address the effects of worsening rates of poverty in the country due to the impacts of both COVID-19 and the military coup, the Myanmar Red Cross stepped in to provide emergency humanitarian assistance. The organization mobilized its volunteers to provide “lifesaving first aid, health care and ambulance services” to citizens amid political unrest. According to the Red Cross website, “since February [2021], 2,000 volunteers have provided first aid services to more than 3,000 people.” The Myanmar Red Cross is also supporting people with both food and cash assistance.

Mercy Corps recognizes that strengthening economic prospects for impoverished citizens helps to both keep them out of the drug trade and raise them out of poverty. By increasing the economic prospects of farmers in Myanmar’s rural and conflict-riddled regions — areas that typically form the centers of the drug trade in Myanmar — Mercy Corps has addressed the issue at its roots. Mercy Corps helps farmers “increase productivity and incomes by accessing new technologies, adopting diversified and environmentally-friendly agricultural practices and accessing financial services like loans and insurance.” Mercy Corps also addresses the instability in Myanmar by working to enhance the agency of individuals and communities with programs designed to increase trust, accountability and conflict resolution.

Looking Ahead

For years, the vibrant drug trade in Myanmar has been a critical component of poverty in the country. Armed groups looked toward narcotics as an economic base. In addition, the lack of economic development in many parts of the country and economic upheavals from the pandemic and foreign economic sanctions make the drug trade a more appealing source of income. Despite efforts to provide direct assistance to the impoverished of Myanmar and to curtail the narcotics industry, much work remains to address the relationship between poverty and the drug trade in Myanmar.

– Coulter Layden
Photo: Flickr

Myanmar's Healthcare System Post Coup

On February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military seized control of the country in a coup. Following a series of raids, several democratically-elected government officials were arrested, including the president, Aung San Suu Kyi. Since the coup, many protesters have taken to the streets, resulting in more than 100 deaths on March 27 alone. Even before the coup, Myanmar’s healthcare system was in shambles. However, NGOs and other groups believe that the coup, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, will exacerbate conditions in the country. The situation is compounded by the return of 100,000 migrant workers to Myanmar in March 2021.

Effect on COVID-19 and Immunizations

Healthcare workers were among some of the first to join the pro-democracy movements. However, this has led to shortages of staff, significantly impacting healthcare service delivery. According to The New Humanitarian, “Soldiers have also occupied major public hospitals and attacked healthcare workers, including emergency responders trying to help injured protesters.” With limited healthcare services available, some doctors are volunteering their time and community groups are stepping in to bridge the gap in healthcare. “The public health system has practically collapsed,” said Andrew Kirkwood, the senior U.N. official in Myanmar, during a briefing in March 2021.

Additionally, the coup has stalled routine vaccinations for children. Due to healthcare workers joining the movement, as well as continued fighting in the remote regions, many refugees and citizens are unable to get their children vaccinated. By July 2021, close to one million children were unable to receive their vaccinations since the coup began.

Due to the fragility of Myanmar’s healthcare system, COVID-19 testing and treatment also came to halt, producing uncertainty regarding Myanmar’s vaccination rollout amid the coup. The coup and the counter-protests induced outbreaks, worsening COVID-19 and causing shutdowns. With the economic strain as well as the risk of the virus, Myanmar’s impoverished families are struggling. Fortunately, in July 2021, the U.N. Country Team in Myanmar stepped in to scale up “the provision of critical health services and COVID-19 vaccination efforts.” The U.N. Country Team is also working to increase testing rates and accelerate the COVID-19 vaccination rollout while tackling the oxygen shortage.

Effect on HIV/AIDS

The coup also led to the shut down of HIV treatment programs and testing, putting many lives at risk. Before the coup and the COVID-19 pandemic, Myanmar implemented several programs to tackle HIV/AIDs in impoverished areas. With the ongoing conflict, it has become harder to access anti-retroviral drugs and there are concerns of shortages due to disrupted supply chains.

ICAP, a global public health NGO, with funding from the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief  (PEPFAR), is “collaborating with the community-based organization Myanmar Positive Group (MPG) to build its capacity to deliver HIV care services.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, ICAP provided “virtual conferencing software for community self-help groups” to host virtual support meetings as these services are crucial to controlling HIV in Myanmar. ICAP also provided training on using virtual software and conducting tele-counseling. During the coup, these established tools will ensure these services continue.

The Good News

Several NGOs stepped up to help Myanmar. The Myanmar Red Cross is intensifying its efforts for humanitarian assistance and healthcare. The organization reported in June 2021 that nearly 236,000 people require assistance as COVID-19 shutdowns and the coup exacerbate poverty. About 2,000 Red Cross healthcare volunteers provided frontline assistance to those injured during the protests and others in need of healthcare services. The organization also provided ambulance services.

The EU also stepped in to assist with a donation of “€9 million in emergency humanitarian aid” in April 2021. The funding will go toward “emergency health support, protection, food security and multi-sector emergency assistance” in Myanmar.

With organizations taking a stand to help Myanmar’s most vulnerable people during the coup, citizens will receive the aid they need while the country awaits the end of the widespread violence and instability.

– Lalitha Shanmugasundaram
Photo: Wikimedia Commons