Food insecurity plays a critical and complex role in Myanmar's current political turmoil, and has played a similar role in uprisings of the past.
On February 1st, 2021 the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, now under the leadership of Min Aung Hlaing, seized control of the government and detained democratically elected leader, Ms Suu Kyi and other members of her party, the National League for Democracy. In the three months since the coup, pro-democracy anti-coup protests have continued to gathered massive crowds, the death toll from the military’s response has surged past 800, and the UN has warned that the country could be heading towards civil war. The protest movement is not only the response to a military takeover, it is also a reflection of growing frustrations concerning economic well-being in the country. Myanmar took a big hit in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic all but halted the country’s thriving tourism market and it prevented many day laborers from going to work. These restrictions highlighted an already severe problem within Myanmar: food insecurity.
Widespread poverty compounded with the COVID-19 pandemic pushed food insecurity in Myanmar into critical status. In 2020, the IFRPI conducted an intensive study of food security in Myanmar which found that income-based poverty increased from 16 to 63 percent between January and September 2020. The coup has increased the strain on supply chains within the country and food prices are rising as a result. The political unrest in Myanmar is putting vulnerable households, who were already living meal to meal, in a very dangerous position.
History Repeats Itself
This is not the first time in Myanmar’s history that economic insecurity and subsequently food insecurity have been major players in a protest movement. In 1988, country-wide protests—later followed by a coup—were in large part sparked by the dire economic and food security issues in the country, in addition to a sudden devaluation of all banknotes. This connection is by no means an isolated example.
In the early 2010s, the world saw a remarkable series of protest movements. Beginning in Tunisia and spreading, to varying degrees of intensity, the Arab Spring was a series of protests that began as a response to oppressive regimes and evolved into a massive movement that championed civil and political liberties and democratic tradition. It is not the purpose of this article to insinuate that the Arab Spring was focused on food insecurity, it was not, but food insecurity was an important catalyst for the protest movement just as it is in Myanmar.
Food Insecurity and Sociopolitical Stability
Food insecurity has a very defined role in sociopolitical stability, and it is acute food insecurity that is the nexus of this connection. Six out of 10 people facing acute food insecurity live in countries experiencing violent conflict. Regions that experience a high level of chronic food insecurity are not typically, or historically, the regions where a violent uprising or social unrest begins. Rather we often see that food riots begin in urban communities where working and middle-class households come into acute food insecurity, either by way of lack of food access or change in purchasing power. This was certainly the case in the Arab Spring.
It is important to note that countries vary in their vulnerability to acute food insecurity. Factors like high import reliance, percentage of population income spent on food, and existing food subsidy programs all affect how hard acute food insecurity incidents hit a country. The global price spike in 2008-2009 brought acute food insecurity events to many of the Arab Spring nations. Some countries were more affected and generally, these countries had larger demonstrations. In Egypt, for example, a spike in wheat prices that the regime couldn’t absorb lead to an increase in food insecurity of 14 to 17.2 percent in the years prior to the 2010 political demonstrations. Syria also saw a food insecurity event before its popular uprising with the prices of dairy products and oil rising by over 25 percent and of fruit by 14 percent.
In Myanmar, this connection is worth noting albeit less direct. Civil unrest and protests are happening in areas that are heavily affected by chronic food insecurity. The western and central regions of Mandalay, the nation’s third most populous state, are in what is known as the Dry Zone (due to a lack of water resources). This region is also a major center for Tatmadaw opposition and protests have been clustered in and around the Dry Zone since the February coup.
Food insecurity played a different role in the uprisings of 1988 Myanmar and the Arab Spring than in the current coup in Myanmar. This coup was not preceded by a popular uprising, rather it followed the peaceful transition of power after a democratic election. Just as it is not the intent of this article to insinuate that all these conflicts were caused by food insecurity it is also not the intent to imply all these conflicts are the same or even that their relation to food insecurity is the same. Food security on its own is not the sole cause for all the popular uprisings, coups, or violent civil unrest we have seen in the world over the past decade. However, access to food and stable market prices of staple foods is essential to the political stability of a nation. And it is for that reason that we see food insecurity underpinning so many geopolitical conflicts and humanitarian crises.