World leaders and government representatives from all over the world are in Dubai this week for the COP28 climate summit. For the third year in a row, missing from the table is an official representative from Myanmar – a country that is both extremely vulnerable to climate change and experiencing violent conflict. But what does Myanmar’s absence from COP28 mean, and does it matter? How can world leaders better support the needs of vulnerable communities in conflict settings?
Before answering these questions, it’s important to understand why Myanmar hasn’t been represented at the most recent COP summits. In February 2021, the Myanmar military staged a coup, instituting a violent and repressive order which resulted in widespread conflict, forcing more than 1.95 million people from their homes.
Nine months after the coup, the junta attempted to send a delegation to the COP26 summit in Glasgow. However, they were denied entry after pro-democracy and Indigenous groups complained to the credentials committee of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Myanmar’s parallel opposition National Unity Government (NUG), which consists of elected politicians and civil society representatives, simultaneously tried to get its own delegation accepted, but was also rejected.
The rejection of the junta was described in 2021 by Indigenous groups and the NUG as “a victory for the people of Myanmar”. Alongside pro-democracy Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun maintaining the position of official Myanmar representative in the UN General Assembly, this signalled that the international community did not recognise the military junta. If, on the other hand, the junta had participated in COP26, there were fears that it would use this to burnish its international reputation, all the while committing abuses against the population and predatory exploitation of the environment.
At COP27 and again this year at COP28, the Myanmar junta was not nominated to attend, but neither was the NUG. This is despite the fact that several countries now recognise the NUG as Myanmar’s legitimate representative. An alliance of Indigenous people from Myanmar has been able to participate in side events at both COP26 and again at this year’s COP28, and while their participation is important, these groups hold far less weight than official delegates of countries who are ‘parties’ to the UNFCCC.
A seat at the COP is a crucial way to voice on the international stage how the military coup has escalated climate change vulnerabilities in Myanmar
The challenge is that with few exceptions, the UN only recognises states, not governments, which effectively excludes alternative delegations from having a seat in high-level negotiations. Myanmar’s situation after the coup is extremely complicated, as it is difficult to determine who the ‘state’ really is. If the state consists of those who sit in the heavily fortified ministry buildings in the Myanmar capital Naypyidaw, then the junta is ‘the state’. However, the junta holds no legitimacy among the people of Myanmar and lacks control of much of the country. Many rural areas are now held by a mixture of ethnic resistance organisations and groups coordinated by the NUG, which enjoy widespread legitimacy. So effectively, Myanmar does not constitute one singular state.
Why a seat at COP28 matters
Negotiations at COP28 in Dubai will highlight the significant needs of communities in conflict-affected states, who are three times more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, but receive little financial support. A seat at the COP is a crucial way to voice on the international stage how the military coup has escalated climate change vulnerabilities in Myanmar, and it is important for securing proper climate financing from the international community.
Research by the MyCClimate project has highlighted the climate-related challenges faced by people in conflict areas, and the lack of funding for community-based initiatives to address these. Environmental and Indigenous-led organisations report increases in deforestation and damage caused by unregulated mining since the 2021 coup – activities that the military are deeply involved in.
As one Karen environmental activist Naw Eh Htee Wah told us, it is vital that the world recognise the Myanmar military as both a brutal dictatorship and a critical danger to the environment. An official from the NUG’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment observed: “We are completely blocked from participating in international forums on climate change and we have very few partners willing to support our climate activities. There needs to be more flexibility in the UN system for cases like Myanmar.”
Alternatives for a more inclusive COP
The situation in Myanmar raises an important question: should the UNFCCC rethink its state-centred COP set-up for countries where the regime in the capital is not recognised by its people, or even the UN? This would mean providing a platform in COP negotiations for local forces that take climate change seriously, recognising these forces as ‘parties’.
In contrast to the military junta, Indigenous groups, environmental networks, ethnic resistance organisations (EROs) and the parallel NUG government in Myanmar continue to voice the threats posed by climate change in Myanmar and implement activities on the ground.
For example, the Indigenous organisation Karen Environmental Social Action Network (KESAN) continues their work on a globally-recognised Indigenous-led conservation zone, the Salween Peace Park. The Karen National Union – Myanmar’s oldest ethnic resistance group – has long been engaged in forest conservation and biodiversity protection, and is developing a climate action plan. In addition, the NUG has started climate change awareness campaigns and several initiatives for the benefit of the environment, such as restrictions on deforestation. However, as explained by Naw Eh Htee Wah, community-led efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change face immense difficulties due to funding shortfalls.
Climate financing beyond the ‘state’
The state-centric set-up of the UN means that the largest share of global climate finance currently goes through states. But in conflict-affected contexts with illegitimate regimes, this is risky and funds often fail to reach the most vulnerable communities. Funding and technical advice should instead be targeted in flexible ways at groups which are actively engaged in climate-related initiatives on the ground and which have a track record in working with communities and environmental protection.
This means a shift in climate financing from top-down, state-centric and purely technical solutions to people-centred approaches that consider existing conflict dynamics. The calls at COP28 for increased attention to conflict-affected countries will hopefully contribute to such a shift, and ensure that countries like Myanmar, which do not have an official seat at the COP, are not forgotten.