In many countries the military has historically used political, social and economic crises to declare emergencies, temporarily suspend democracy, and take power. Now environmental crises may also be used to justify military intervention and the deployment of armed forces. Since climate change leads to the increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, then we face the prospect of more frequent emergencies. This could mean that the emergency powers of the military and the temporary suspension of democracy will become more frequent too. In several countries, there is a very real risk that these continuous climate emergencies could lead to the continuous suspension of democracy and democratic rights – the same democracy and democratic rights needed to tackle the climate crisis and ensure climate justice.
When Cyclone Mocha struck the coast of Bangladesh and the western region of Myanmar on May 14, 2023, the category-five tropical storm caused the tragic loss of life and widespread devastation in Rakhine State. Most of the capital city, Sittwe, was destroyed.
It is well understood that extreme weather events like Cyclone Mocha have increased in frequency and intensity as a result of human-induced (anthropogenic) climate change. What is less well understood is that the political context of these extreme weather events has a profound impact on the extent of the death, destruction and displacement caused.
The Women’s Peace Network , which has courageously reported on brutal repression and human rights violations in Myanmar, held an emergency briefing on May 16 that assessed the impact of Cyclone Mocha. The briefing observed the ways in which the military junta used the cyclone to further its political repression:
Reports on the junta’s response to Cyclone Mocha have begun to surface, revealing that the junta sabotaged evacuation efforts of the Rohingya IDPs [internally displaced persons] and has since blocked aid access to their camps and surrounding areas. Such findings, among many others, are in line with the junta’s acts to further entrench the apartheid in Rakhine State following its February 1, 2021 attempted coup.
Described as “convenient negligence”, the devastating impact of Cyclone Mocha on Rakhine State and Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh recalls their forced displacement from Myanmar in the the genocide perpetrated by the military in 2017, which the UN Human Rights Council recognized as crimes against humanity.
It is here that we see the convergence of climate vulnerability and the vulnerability of populations living under military rule. This vulnerability is magnified by the systemic political persecution and acts of genocide perpetrated against specific ethnic groups. Not only do people suffer the loss of life, destruction of their homes, deprivation and displacement, but the possibility of preparing themselves or taking collective action to protect their communities is severely constrained.
In the humanitarian crises following extreme weather events such as cyclones, we often see international aid organizations justify the necessity of working with military regimes. In fact, some relief agencies appear to believe that centralized authoritarian regimes are a more efficient delivery mechanism for aid. This neglects the fact that authoritarian regimes are massively corrupt, and public resources – including humanitarian aid – are diverted through the powerful elite and their cronies. The theft of public resources is one of the key reasons why such regimes exist in the first place.
More importantly, under authoritarian regimes, humanitarian crises and humanitarian aid are politically determined. Populations identified as hostile to the state and/or specific ethnic or religious groups are denied access to humanitarian aid. As we see in Myanmar today, the military junta’s war on civilian populations extends to the denial of humanitarian assistance. The reason for this is not complex. To be a victim of a humanitarian crisis and be eligible for humanitarian aid, you must first be considered human.
Since 1945 we have witnessed the beginning of the end of democracy in several countries (often backed by foreign intervention) where states of emergency are declared at national or sub-national level (state, region, province) and the military are deployed on the streets. Once the troops are out of the barracks, the military generals and their children move swiftly into political, civilian and economic life.
Even if the powers of an elected parliament or congress are restored, and democratic elections resume, the military retain control of political parties and maintain their foothold in political, civilian and economic life. For the people this becomes a perpetual state of emergency – a permanent crisis.
In this continuous crisis “climate resilience” is also redefined. Climate resilience involves a collective responsibility to ensure equitable social, economic and cultural responses to the effects of climate change, and ensuring that human health, livelihoods and the environment are protected. Now calls by political elites for greater climate resilience in our communities means that we must simply face the next extreme weather event. Stripped of democratic mechanisms for collective action and accountability, and in the absence of rights, climate resilience means vulnerable communities are simply expected to endure. Or move.
In several countries, the far right has already shifted from climate denial to climate panic. They see a political opportunity to expose state failure to support affected communities (especially climate vulnerable rural communities). In the face of this new crisis the far right can repeat its call for strong leadership – a populist term for authoritarian rule. Like every emergency in response to an external threat to the nation, the climate crisis will be used by the far right to justify the suspension of democracy.
In this cascading climate crisis we face the prospect of continuous climate emergencies due to extreme weather events, heat waves and wildfires. This is intensified by “climate whiplash” from one extreme weather event to another (drought followed by flooding; wildfires followed by torrential rains). What if this then leads to a continuous state of emergency in which the suspension of democracy becomes permanent?
Dr Muhammad Hidayat Greenfield, IUF Asia/Pacific Regional Secretary