Sin net chaung 2 (1)
February 5, 2021 Coffee Sources

Countries Spotlight: Myanmar

While it can feel overwhelming to exhaustively familiarize oneself with the complexities of each supply chain that contributes to the commodities we take for granted in our everyday life, we do believe it is our job, as an impact-oriented coffee roasting company, to shed light on some of the densest and most challenging circumstances. We hope that this post sparks more curiosity about all of the countries that produce the coffees we are so proud to share with you. We’ll keep doing our best to reward that curiosity with delicious coffees and thoughtful reflections on why we chose them.

Like all of the countries whose coffees we represent at Dispatch, Myanmar has a complex history that may reasonably elicit an array of curiosities and concerns. As a country farther from the radar of specialty coffee, with a government actively entwined in dynamic and dire circumstances, we believe it is especially important to have an understanding for the context surrounding this offering on our menu. 

At time of writing, certainly the most dynamic and distressing circumstances in Myanmar surround the recent military coup. We are by no means experts on the complex, multifaceted array of factors critical to a thorough and exhaustive consideration of this subject, but we have been following the story through several global news sources (New York Times, Al Jazeera, BBC) as well as through our importing partners, who maintain a more direct connection to our partners in Myanmar.

The core action of this turn of events took place on February 1st, when military leaders detained the country’s democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as several other senior figures from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD). The military then declared a one-year state of emergency, justifying this action on account of alleged fraud in the November election that the NLD won in a landslide.

Immediately drawing condemnation from around the world, the military escalated the situation in subsequent days, raiding NLD offices, blocking Facebook, Whatsapp, and Twitter. All of these actions contributed to the largest demonstrations of mass unrest in more than a decade. Concurrently, a civil disobedience movement has swept throughout the country. Today, on the 23rd of February, protests and strikes sustain among the people, while the military continues engaging in violence and repression to maintain their power and agency.

At Dispatch, we firmly, unequivocally stand with the Burmese people. Our partnership with the cooperative organization and the farmers it represents remains strong in spirit, regardless of how these circumstances will affect our ability to receive their coffee next year. 

All of the text below was written prior to the coup, but remains relevant to a deeper understanding of our supply chain in Myanmar.

Here are four key points to know about Myanmar and our supply chain:

1. What is the primary concern I should know about pertaining to this offering?

A. The Rohingya Crisis - refers to the active, violent persecution and denial of citizenship of the Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority living primarily in the Rakhine State in western Myanmar. This crisis has caused massive, catastrophic displacement. These events were most widely reported in 2017, when intense armed conflicts escalated between a Rohingya militant group (ARSA) and Rakhine-based Myanmar military. It was during and following this period that Rohingya migration reached dramatic and untenable proportions in western Myanmar and Bangladesh. The United Nations, as well as many independent nations, have condemned and enforced sanctions against Myanmar, and the situation remains volatile. 

2. What is being done about this? 

A. Most would argue that not enough is being done about this. However, international humanitarian organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, USAID, Winrock, the Arakan Project, and Fortify Rights have amplified their focus, energy, and investments in this region. Winrock, the group managing the Rural Development Project providing assistance and supervision to the communities producing the coffee we will be featuring, also works toward gender-based violence prevention, refugee services, and an array of economic support-systems aimed toward stabilizing low-income, rural communities most vulnerable to conflicts such as and similar to the one described above.

B. In addition to the organizations listed above, UNICEF in particular is organizing efforts to assist Rohingya refugee children in Bangladesh. Dispatch is donating $0.25/bag of coffee sold to UNICEF’s mission, which includes the following areas of emphasis:

  • UNICEF-supported newborn stabilization units where over 4,600 sick babies received treatment and lifesaving care

  • Pentavalent 3 vaccinations to protect over 37,000 babies 11 months and under from diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis B and Haemophilus influenza type b (DTP-hepB-Hib)

  • ​Nutrition-enhancing Vitamin A supplements for over 150,000 children under 5

  • Clean, safe drinking water for 400,000 Rohingya refugees 

  • Counseling and emotional support for nearly 80,000 children 

  • At 16 safe spaces, over 34,000 teen girls and women, who were at risk for or already experiencing violence, received lifesaving interventions, service referrals and skills training

3. Who and what are we supporting by buying this coffee?

Sin net chaung 3

A. When Dispatch buys coffees, regardless of the country they come from, we aspire to reinforce the viability of rural agro-economies in socially and economically vulnerable areas. To do this, we typically buy from small community organizations or community cooperative structures that represent an array of rural families who stand to earnestly benefit from heightening the demonstrable viability of growing coffee. In other words, we do not buy coffee from large, state-funded estates, and therefore the individuals that we support are those who are most likely to be adversely impacted by statewide instability, whether due to financial or social duress, and very often a combination of the two.

B. As described in this coffee’s primary story, this coffee was made possible by Winrock, a non-profit organization that engages in a wide variety of humanitarian and rural development projects. In this case, Winrock’s goal is to provide structure and strategy to communities who stand to amplify their means of economic stability and sustainability through effective management of agribusiness, with the eventual goal of self-sufficiency. Dispatch is investing in this project (buying this coffee from Atlas, our importing partner) concurrent with these communities’ transition to independent management - the same model/moment employed for Guatemala la Asuncion, also presently on the menu.

Sin net chaung 4

C. By abandoning/avoiding partnership with rural communities in countries whose governments perpetrate wrongdoing, these communities’ ability to exercise agency over their own sustainability is only more tied to their governments. Engaging in relationships like this - those that have their ethical ramifications reinforced by non--profit multinational businesses such as Winrock - are small steps toward empowering the most vulnerable communities in these tremendously complex systems.

4. Is it Myanmar or Burma? Why is it written as Birmanie in French?

A. The names Myanmar and Burma are, in earnest, used quite interchangeably. Both words derive from the nation’s largest ethnic group, the Bamar people, with Myanma the more literary/formal, while Bama the more colloquial. The word Myanmar is sometimes considered to be more inclusive and less singularly tied to the Bamar people, but the circumstances surrounding the name change - the military takeover of the government in 1989 - remain reasonably controversial, and many Burmese feel that the formal name is more impositionary than inclusive.

B. Among the key eccentricities of this confusion is that Burma’s name was officially changed to Myanmar in English only, while the name did not officially change in Burmese, and therefore is most often seen as Burma or an equivalent translation in other languages. 

C. Many English-speaking countries (including the US, UK, and Australia) continued to predominantly refer to the nation as Burma into the twenty-first century, but there has been a noticeable swing toward “Myanmar” since the country underwent its first democratic elections in 2016. In 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s State Counsellor (similar to Prime Minister) encouraged non-Burmese speakers to use either name, when she said “there is nothing in the constitution or our country that says you must use any term in particular.” Of course, this statement should not be misconstrued as an absolution for insensitive usage of either term, but reinforces the complexity and lack of objective correctness in navigating the nomenclature.