Why you should care
These activists are Myanmar’s little-known protectors.
When it came to organizing protests under Myanmar’s military dictatorship, Bobo Lwin knew that discretion often meant the difference between action and incarceration. So he met fellow activists in small galleries and inconspicuous tea houses away from Yangon’s busier districts. The key, Lwin says, was to act nonchalant: Never look as though you were discussing anything more important than the weather. He remembers the time volunteers in his youth organization, the Kalyana Mitta Development Foundation (KMF), were investigated simply for chatting while cleaning a pagoda. “It wasn’t related to any political agenda,” Lwin says. “They were just sharing their thoughts about Buddhism and volunteerism.”
Fortunately, that Kafkaesque era started winding down around 2010, when the military dictatorship that had run the “hermit kingdom” for a half-century began to give way to a fragile democracy. These days, however, Lwin and other activists are battling an opponent that may prove as formidable as repressive generals: China. With the Asian giant looking to accelerate their control over Myanmar’s mineral wealth and hydroelectric potential, Lwin and his fellow activists are stepping up the fight to ensure their country’s economic, social and environmental integrity is protected — and they’ve won several rounds in the heavyweight bout.
Even the Chinese dam developers acknowledged their project conduct was affected by activism.
Julian Kirchherr, Utrecht University
China has been encouraging foreign investment since 2001, when it launched its Going Out Policy. In 2015-16 the country poured $3.3 billion into Myanmar, mostly on projects involving oil, gas, hydropower and resource extraction. That’s more than a third of the country’s $9.4 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) for that time period. (Myanmar’s FDI in 2006 when the generals still ran the show was, officially, a piddling $275 million.)
The world’s second-biggest economy investing in one of Asia’s poorest countries — it sounds like a good thing, and it might still be. But here’s the catch. Nations with strong institutions can identify and address potential social, political and environmental downsides to huge projects and block them if the negatives of development outweigh the benefits. That’s tougher to do in developing nations like Myanmar, where frail institutions leave the country vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. In resource-rich nations like Myanmar, that risk is called the “resource curse.”
That’s where Lwin and his fellow activists come in. Initially, they focused on protecting Myanmar’s rivers from Chinese dam builders, who boast that they construct every second dam worldwide. That ratio stands up, more or less, in Myanmar, where Chinese developers are involved in 29 of the country’s 63 major dam projects. In 2010, during the waning days of the military dictatorship, activists managed to get construction suspended on the $3.6 billion Myitsone project in northern Myanmar, claiming the dam would cause extensive flooding and other environmental damage. Since dissent was forbidden at the time, organizers pretended that the protests were mass prayer ceremonies for the Irrawaddy River.
A recently published research paper titled “Learning It the Hard Way” suggests that social mobilization by groups like Lwin’s, as well as the advocacy of international NGOs to fight dam construction, is working not only in Myanmar but elsewhere in Southeast Asia. “This was one of the narratives that emerged consistently across the various interviews,” says Julian Kirchherr, a geoscience professor at Utrecht University and co-author of the paper. “Even the Chinese dam developers acknowledged their project conduct was affected by activism — that they changed their approach to social safeguards as a response to advocacy.”
Other social and environmental victories followed. Last July investigations by international watchdog groups, as well as by local civil society organizations (CSOs), led to the passage of ground-breaking legislation designed to reform Myanmar’s corrupt and secretive jade industry, which some experts value at $31 billion — almost half of the country’s gross domestic product. The trade, which centers on the war-torn northern state of Kachin, has long been linked to drug lords, military hard-liners, smuggling and stolen wealth, all of which threatens Myanmar’s fledgling democracy.
The grassroots impact of all this activism is undeniable, but any talk of CSOs and other groups appearing as if out of nowhere is a common misconception, says Kirchherr: “The country has had a quite active civil society even before [democratization], although many protest activities were masked back then,” as in the Myitsone Dam protests. Lwin, whose KMF youth network now employs 34 staffers in three offices, confirms Kirchherr’s point. “In the past, a lot of young people cared about the environment, but they could not see the structural violence due to very strict control and lack of freedom in the media,” Lwin explains. “Because of learning opportunities as well as open spaces for networking and coordination among CSOs, more environmental defenders [have] appeared.”
As a result, their numbers are growing — as is their importance to Myanmar’s future. “Civil society has really exploded ever since the opening up,” Kirchherr says. “It is extremely vocal. It really shapes the public discourse in Myanmar, and [activists] are not afraid to criticize the Burmese government or Chinese players.”
With a steady stream of proposed investments and projects coming to Myanmar, the country’s new political leadership will need Lwin and other CSO activists to remain as vigilant as ever.