By Catriona Knapman, Governance and Human Rights Officer, Myanmar
Myanmar was once world renowned as a country with severe oppression of human rights. Yet, in 2011 the decision to abandon military rule; the by-elections in 2012, which saw the election of opposition party candidates; and the forthcoming national elections in 2015 mark significant steps towards a Myanmar where human rights have an increasingly important place.
Although these high level changes are important steps in creating a national dynamic of human rights, it is at civil society level where those rights are being expressed. Indeed, since 2010 a number of new activist groups have formed inside Myanmar. While previously, most Burmese civil society operated from outside the country, these new groups are firmly rooted in the local context. They assert their own vision for the development of a new Myanmar and in contrast to the older groups, their activism holds opinions; but also seeks compromise.
“Our role is giving the community information about their rights”, says Lwin Lwin of Tavoy Women’s Union, who are supporting communities whose livelihoods are affected by land grabbing. Wai Wai Lwin, a development worker who works on Special Economic Zone projects agrees, stating, “We need to give the community information on how to approach these issues with cleverness.”
Wai Wai’s activities focus on “legal aid service, collecting data, giving information to members of parliament and local authorities. This is more effective than protest” she states. Bo Bo Aung of Dawei Development Association (DDA) agrees that good tactics are essential. He emphasises “we never did a protest. We use messages, not protest.”
Examples of activism in Myanmar, including a cycling initiative to spread information about green development and piling stones to object to road building in Dawei. Photos: DDA
Bobo describes one such activity where DDA organised a Cycling for Rights campaign, focused around a ten day cycle run from Yangon to Dawei, in the South of Myanmar. Along the way cyclists handed out information about the environment and green development.
“People outside of Dawei know very little about the planned Special Economic Zone” states Bobo. “This is one way to raise awareness. It is the right of every citizen to cycle”, grins Bobo and “cycling is a way to help people understand their freedoms.”
Dawei is at the centre of national development plans and is the planned site for a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and Deep Sea Port. According to official calculations 32,274 people face relocation as a result of the planned industrial zone, road link and hydro dam projects and unofficial calculations place the number much higher. Potential relocation, minimal consultation, disputed compensation and concerns for future livelihoods of this largely agricultural area have pushed citizens to take action to protect their land and livelihood.
Indeed, villagers are engaged in taking actions to demonstrate their rights. Bobo explains an activity organised by the indigenous Karen community in Dawei, who are affected by a road link project, which will connect Dawei to Bangkok, cutting through the village and protected forest area.
“The villagers made a stone pile in the middle of the road. The aim was to show unity between villages and to show strength of community. The villagers made a wish to stay in peace as they piled the stones,” explains Bobo. The pile of stones continues to grow, as supporters who visit sign a stone and add it to the demonstration.
Thant Zin, a DDA member, provides another example in the village of Ka Lone Htar where a hydro dam project is planned.
The villagers, who strongly oppose the project, were furious to discover their faces on the main investor’s Corporate Social Responsibility materials. In protest they developed ‘No Dam’ signs which they placed around their meeting room before investor representatives visited. Thant Zin highlights that even this simple action made an important visual impact on the investors.
While these strong statements are important, Thant Zin also highlights the importance of subtle messaging. “Villagers bring motorbikes to meetings with the company as a visual demonstration that they have enough income and resources from their current livelihoods.”
“No one can guarantee safety, but people are braver than before, they know more than before,” says Bobo. Thant Zin agrees, stating that “people have more ability to express rights than before”. However both highlight the current challenge for activists is getting those voices heard at policy maker and decision maker level.
Dawei communities have also worked towards this, reminding President Thein Sein of the four principles he has promised for foreign investment in Myanmar. Villagers created sign boards with the President’s photo and his promises: “To protect the interest of Myanmar citizens; the dignity of the state and national sovereignty; and to allow environment-friendly investment.”
Yet even with this new citizen engagement in human rights and government promises for reform; Myanmar is still in a period of change and transition. In this context, it remains difficult to gauge the real range of human rights freedoms.
Wai Wai highlights, “Justice is not a word which has a real sense for me or for Myanmar citizens.” She states that “we all need to participate socially, economically and politically, to create justice. It is something every citizen needs to address.”