Image: The Permaculture Institute Myanmar, taken in 2021.

It takes a certain level of passion and interest to research in a single field for 8 years. Lecturer in Sociology and Peace Studies at UNE Dr Johanna Garnett’s motivation for researching and writing about the nascent food sovereignty movement (FSM) in and around the country of Myanmar has only increased throughout the years, and she is as passionate about this research as ever.

Since late 2013, Dr Garnett has been investigating food sovereignty movements emanating from agrarian communities in and around the South-East Asian country of Myanmar; however, recent changes within Myanmar have changed the dynamic of her research quite dramatically.

Dr Garnett’s study has been informed by extensive in-country fieldwork which came to a halt due to COVID in early 2020. She was able to meet this challenge by shifting her research online, working remotely and engaging with Myanmar colleagues. However, six months ago, on the 1st of February 2021 Myanmar experienced a political coup instigated and led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the military, the tatmadaw. As a result, the country has quickly slipped back into political darkness after nearly a decade of unprecedented political agency and freedoms – an environment that was conducive to the development of the FSMs.  

For those who might not know, food sovereignty means having power over how or from where food is sourced. In the case of Dr Garnett’s research, the focus is on land rights, growing food locally, using traditional methods whilst integrating best practices, such as integrated farming and organic inputs. As such, food sovereignty is seen as a means of food security – enabling access to healthy, fresh, seasonal food, not poisoned by chemicals whilst regenerating soils and protecting environments.

The return to authoritarianism in Myanmar has challenged Dr Garnett’s research strategies and focus – shifting to how the FSMs are going to navigate and operate within a post-coup

Johanna with the initial cohort that she worked with and wrote about for her PhD. Taken in November 2013.

environment, under an authoritarian regime. This work is important because it provides unique insights into the challenges facing social movements in Myanmar but also contributes to the discussion surrounding FSMs globally, particularly given a shift to authoritarianism around the world.

When researching within a field over a long period of time, particularly considering the changes that have occurred within Myanmar, it is natural for a researcher’s motivations to change. When discussing the origin of her project Dr Garnett noted that her motivations have only increased.

“My initial motivation, as an advocate of grassroots activism for social change, was to understand the everyday politics of a country undergoing rapid social change – modernisation and industrialisation. My motivation to work in this field has only increased, primarily because of the dedication emanating from the Myanmar participants – hence my commitment to a number of community development projects in Myanmar. Myanmar people share similar values relating to environmental and social justice, and I am led by Myanmar locals and colleagues in documenting their stories and contributing to understandings of everyday politics, resilience and the need for creative responses to climate change and globalisation.”

Whilst Dr Garnett’s Myanmar colleagues continue to develop their programs and the FSM remains strong in areas, Myanmar is now in the depths of a double crisis, with the coup and a third wave of COVID. The country came out of the first two outbreaks of COVID rather lightly but not this time round. The number of COVID-19 fatalities in the third wave of coronavirus has exceeded the combined total of deaths in the first two waves of the pandemics. The key concern now for the people of Myanmar is protecting themselves and their families from COVID. 

Further, the tatmadaw, which has an appalling human rights record, operates in fear of exposure of their repression so the internet, social media and tele-communications are monitored and anyone who resists the regime is vulnerable to arrest, torture and even death. Dr Garnett continues to monitor the political situation, stay in contact with her Myanmar colleagues and research participants as much as possible, and to write about Myanmar. However she is now facing the challenge of supporting her participants by documenting their contemporary concerns and activities, while acknowledging the precariousness of their situation.  

With a project spanning such a considerable amount of time Dr Garnett has had many opportunities to discover insights in this field. The first was that many Myanmar people, ‘particularly those from ethnic and agrarian communities’, have strong attachments to place. “Land is life – it is their heart and soul,” said Dr Garnett about what her research has taught her. “Like-minded people in Myanmar are forming what we call ‘communities of interests’ with people from other countries – like me. I have also learnt not to romanticise traditional practices – for example, there are gendered aspects to this movement in Myanmar – young men are tending to take the lead in new practices and processes, while the women are doing much of the hard labour and playing a support role. A response to the desire for some women to take on leadership roles has been education, and the mixing of traditional practices with new technology and understandings. Prior to the coup grassroots agricultural and food sovereignty organisations were very active in Myanmar contributing to the modernisation of the country.”

As an activist researcher, and together with other political analysts in Australia, Dr Garnett is deeply frustrated at the lack of action by the international community, towards the military coup in Myanmar, Australia included. The situation has made her question her positionality as a political scientist, noting that this age of global uncertainty is challenging many researchers to rethink their roles, particularly the need to shift their analytical focus. 

Dr Garnett has recently had an abstract accepted by the Australian Political Studies Association titled Challenges for Political Activist Research in an Age of Uncertainty: Myanmar, in which she considers this dilemma, and raises a number of questions: ‘In light of the upheavals of contemporary politics, especially the consequences, is it sufficient that we observe, analyse and commentate or should we be (more) actively involved in the solutions? Is our role ever more important in this era? Or, are we in danger of obsolescence?’