Regarding the Myanmar Crisis & Coffee Supply Chain Development
Here we aim to answer the questions we most often receive from coffee roasters about Myanmar, and put to rest some significant misconceptions. In light of the escalating crises in the Rakhine State of Myanmar, we thought it important to first highlight some of the key points about what’s happening in the region, and give clarification around what can be done. Secondarily, with this context, we’ll explain how we think about this from the perspective of working with coffee communities in Myanmar.
What is happening in the Rakhine state in Myanmar?
The state of Rakhine is on the West coast of Myanmar, and has faced long-standing tensions and conflicts between the Muslim Rohingya people, the majority Buddhist ethnic Rakhine people, and the military. This has led to mass displacement of the Rohingya, and recently to an emergency situation sparked by renewed conflicts. While these tensions and issues date back several centuries, it is important to note the recent history of military operations and issues for Rohingya that have occurred over preceding decades.
- n 1977 the military junta began an operation aimed at screening the population for foreigners, in which more than 200,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh. Following this in 1978 the UN facilitated a deal between Bangladesh and Myanmar for the repatriation of refugees, under which most Rohingya returned.
- In 1991 more than 250,000 Rohingya refugees fled what they said was forced labour, rape and religious persecution at the hands of the Myanmar army - the army at the time stated it was trying to bring order to Rakhine. Following this from 1992 to 1997 around 230,000 Rohingya returned to Rakhine under another repatriation agreement.
- In 2012, Rioting between Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists killed more than 100 people, mostly Rohingya. Tens of thousands of people were driven into Bangladesh.
- In October 2016, a Rohingya militant group attacked border guard posts, killing 9 soldiers. The army retaliated and launched a military campaign against the Rohingya. More than 25,000 people fled Rakhine to Bangladesh, bringing accounts of killing, rape, and arson.
- More recently, the Rohingya are now fleeing from a Myanmar military offensive in the western state of Rakhine that began after a series of guerrilla attacks on August 2017 on security posts and an army camp in which about a dozen people were killed. The United Nations believes more than 370,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh since August 25th.
While these offensives have been occurring over several decades, exacerbated or driven by the military, the context in recent years is also different – 2015 saw the first election of a civilian government in Myanmar, following 50 years of military rule. With this government in place and the country having opened up economically and politically since this time, the world’s eyes are currently on what Myanmar will do about this burgeoning crisis.
The civilian government has been accused of being complacent in not condemning the actions of the Military with the Rohingya. However, it must be understood that the civilian government does not have control over the military (due to provisions in its constitution) and holds very few levers for control in the region. The armed forces retain total control of security matters in Myanmar, including the three security-related cabinet posts, a 25% allocation of all parliamentary seats, and veto power over changes to the constitution.
While violence that violates human rights is clearly unacceptable, the Myanmar civilian government must balance the interests of several parties to navigate a peaceful transition. The success of the next elections in 2020 and further democratic reforms are far from guaranteed, and a loss of control risks a devolvement into military rule. You can read the constitution here.
What can be done?
The path forward is understandably uncertain, but an emergency situation is unfolding with the fleeing Rohingya that must be urgently addressed.
Neighbouring countries and the global community are being called upon to shelter and support the Rohingya refugees, particularly those in Bangladesh. This is the most urgent need for those requiring support, and a way we as most individuals can help and assist in the short term.
While relief for refugees is a current priority, in the long term there must be a solution for resolving the underlying issues in Rakhine State. In August 2017 the Rakhine Commission, led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, released its report on the path to longer-term stability in the region. Fully supported by Aung San Suu Kyi, the report focuses on the social, environmental and economic levers the government can control in the long term in the region, this report called for resolving citizenship issues, allowing freedom of movement, clarity of rights for those in the Rakhine area, and ensuring a path to socio economic development. It noted that importantly all efforts need to legitimately recognise the concerns and needs of all local people in the Rakhine region (ethnic Rakhine, Rohingya and other minorities), to enable equitable opportunities and peace.
The civilian government has committed to the recommendations of the Commission, but will need significant help collaborating with the military and Rakhine's politicians to support peace education, reconciliation and economic development in this region, as well as a stable political mandate.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has been scaling up, providing much needed critical support to people seeking safety in Bangladesh. UNHCR is providing emergency response and assistance, in particular in the two camps of Kutupalong and Nayapara, and are seeking funding support to provide families with ongoing protection in these areas.
What does Raw Material do in Myanmar, and why?
Since 2015 we’ve been a small, dedicated part of the work carried out by Winrock, funded by USAID, and supported by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) to develop specialty coffee value chains in Myanmar. The group’s work has introduced new production practices to smallholder farmers, many of whom are women in remote communities, who have quickly taken up the opportunity to improve the quality of their coffee and gained access to a new market for their products.
The work of Winrock began in 2014 after the local community identified that they required assistance in this area, and is planned to continue through to 2019. Regarding Raw Material’s involvement specifically, this has taken the form of sample analysis each season, judging the annual producer’s competition, providing feedback to producers, writing reports for Winrock’s use in wider project activities, presenting the project and hosting cuppings in Australasia and Europe, buying coffee and linking the new supply with predictable demand where possible.
What is the impact of the project?
From 2015 to 2017, smallholder coffee farmers taking part in this project in Shan state achieved gross margin increases from about USD $583/Ha in 2015 to USD $801/Ha. This is very significant, as GDP per capita is USD $1,275, below both Bangladesh and India.
So far in 2017 over 9,500 smallholder coffee farmers have taken part in training sessions to learn new production and processing techniques. Milling and processing technology has been upgraded through local industry leading firms. Cupping trainings have resulted in the first certified Q-graders registered this year, and for the first time a local judge joined the cupping panel in what was the 3rd annual producers competition. These quality improvements have lead to a growing number of producers selling to the international specialty coffee market and earning 1.5x to 2x the income through doing so. Some of this funding also flows to the wider villages through cooperatives, and 2% goes to the government through taxes, to help fund public goods and services.
Given the context, what does this mean for interested coffee roasters?
While Myanmar and people in the Rakhine state face immediate and urgent challenges that must be addressed, this does not remove the need to also work to expand opportunities for the people of the country for the longer term. Socio economic development remains important for Myanmar as a whole, and in particular for vulnerable populations.
Some roasters tell us they have chosen to boycott Myanmar coffee due to the crisis in Rakhine. This is a confused position.
It is neither the “Myanmar government” nor the “Myanmar army” benefitting from these sales. The coffee is produced and sold by farmers in remote areas of the Shan hills belonging to the Pa’O and Danu ethnic groups. These are people whose economic development has been hindered under the military, and international sanctions in response to the military rule, for the past 60 years; they are among the most vulnerable populations in the country. Do not mistakenly penalise them for what is happening in Rakhine. It is important keep support for the people and communities in this region, and in doing so demonstrate a path for the country to grow its local economies to serve the needs of the rural population.
In Myanmar we see a timely opportunity to have an impact on coffee producer’s opportunities. We believe sustainable and stable incomes are within reach, due to the unique suitability of coffee as a crop in the region, the multilateral investment of time, money, and expertise in this project, and the willingness people have demonstrated in growing their specialty coffee production capacities.
At the same time, there is much work to be done in Myanmar as the crisis continues, so please consider supporting the relief efforts you are able.