Authoritarian Rule and the Weaponisation of Natural Disasters: The Case of Myanmar from Cyclone Nargis to the COVID-19 Pandemic (2008–2021)

Published date01 August 2022
Date01 August 2022
Subject MatterResearch Articles
Research Article
Authoritarian Rule and
the Weaponisation of
Natural Disasters:
The Case of Myanmar
from Cyclone Nargis
to the COVID-19
Pandemic (2008–2021)
Andrea Passeri1
Myanmar’s 2021 military coup paved the way for a ruthless weaponisation of the
COVID-19 pandemic, aimed at crushing opposition groups and ethnic minorities
who opposed the army’s power grab. The manipulation of natural disasters for
political purposes, however, is nothing new for Burmese praetorian regimes, which
employed a similar strategy in the aftermath of the 2008 Cyclone Nargis in order
to further marginalise and subjugate their internal enemies. To a large extent, such
a callous decision stems from the powerful political implications brought about
by natural disasters, which are perceived by authoritarian leaders as exogenous
shocks capable of triggering a process of heightened popular contestation and
regime change. In the case of Myanmar, this specific fear thus persuaded military
rulers to weaponise the impact of natural calamities and health crises as part of
a longstanding counterinsurgency playbook, centred on the so-called ‘four cuts’
doctrine. As a result, those who do not conform with the Bamar-Buddhist image
of Myanmar professed by the army—or dare to criticise its dominant position
in Burmese politics—have been deliberately excluded from post-disaster relief
efforts, in what appears as a further testament of the junta’s unwavering resolve in
retaining the reins of power. Building upon the existing literature on the political
implications of natural hazards in authoritarian settings, the following article sheds
light on the drivers and rationale that persuaded Myanmar’s Generals to weaponise
humanitarian crisis against ethnic minorities and opposition forces, by looking at
the two case-studies provided by Cyclone Nargis and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
9(2) 280–300, 2022
© The Author(s) 2022
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/23477970221098475
1 Department of International and Strategic Studies, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Corresponding author:
Andrea Passeri, Department of International and Strategic Studies, University of Malaya, Kuala
Lumpur 50603, Malaysia.
Passeri 281
Myanmar, COVID-19, natural disasters, authoritarian regimes, Cyclone Nargis
Introduction: Natural Disasters and Their Political
Implications for Authoritarian Regimes
According to a formal definition provided by the UN, a natural disaster can be
portrayed as ‘a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society
involving widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses
and impacts’ (United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
[UNISDR], 2009, p. 9). As such, natural calamities materialise as exogenous
and largely unforeseen events that cause a sudden shock to a State, disrupting
its socio-economic fabric. With regards to their classification, it is possible to
distinguish between ‘hydro-meteorological’ disasters (floods, cyclones, droughts
and wildfires), ‘geological’ calamities (earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic
eruptions), and a residual category that includes food and health crisis (famines
and epidemics; Nel & Righarts, 2008, p. 162). Consequently, for the purpose of
this study, the expression natural disasters will be used as a shorthand for a broad
range of humanitarian emergencies triggered by meteorological cataclysms,
geological hazards or public health crisis.
When it comes to their socio-economic impact, the empirical record stemming
from various parts of the globe indicates that similar catastrophes unleash various
destabilising effects, especially in hampering development, widening wealth gaps
and prompting the marginalisation of specific groups or minorities (Ferris, 2010).
Moreover, under certain conditions, natural disasters can also create a power
vacuum in the political arena fuelled by the contestation of the status quo, thus
paving the way for the outbreak of civil wars, humanitarian crisis and forced
migrations (McLaughlin-Mitchell & Pizzi, 2021). Hence, regardless of their specific
character or causes, natural disasters tend to present themselves as inherently
political phenomena, which prompt a series of major challenges for authoritarian
regimes. Against this backdrop, the literature on authoritarianism clearly shows that
similar shocks often act as powerful triggers for regime changes in non-democratic
societies, hampering the legitimacy of autocrats and setting the stage for political
reforms either invoked by opposition forces or initiated by the regime itself in the
attempt of safeguarding its own survival (Landry & Stockmann, 2009, p. 4).
In scrutinising the mechanisms through which natural disasters translate into
political outcomes, Mark Pelling and Kathleen Dill contend that similar cataclysms
affect domestic politics in two distinct ways (Pelling & Dill, 2010, pp. 22–23). In
several instances, most notably, a disaster can bring about a ‘tipping point’ where
political change materialises via popular contestation, thus leading to the
materialisation of a critical juncture for the future trajectory of a given regime. In
such cases, natural calamities open the space for the emergence of new actors and
grievances, laying the foundations for a major metamorphosis in the political
outlook of a given country. Alternatively, in other circumstances, natural disasters

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