Even against history’s most oppressive regimes, brave activists have always found unexpected ways to spread information to ordinary citizens. The story of Myint Zaw, one of six winners of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots environmental activism, is an example of how creative thinking can working against repressive governments.
Zaw grew up under Myanmar’s often brutal military dictatorship. He saw his government systematically strip the nation’s lands of its natural resources–almost always to enrich itself at the expensive of an impoverished, mostly rural population. The last straw for him was the proposed Myitsone Dam, a 6,000 megawatt hydropower dam proposed for Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River, where Zaw swam as a boy. The dam would displace 18,000 people and destroy many ecosystems, all the while sending most power back to China.
The dam was long in the planning stages when Zaw got involved in 2009 in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, a time when a grassroots environmental movement was just starting to form. He originally started a foundation to provide humanitarian relief after the cyclone, but soon shifted to made the the dam its main issue.
With censorship rampant, activists had to look to more subtle informational tactics–and Zaw soon became the “creative engine” of the campaign by starting an art gallery that turned to storytelling, photography, poems, and songs to raise awareness.
“We started out strategizing on how we can mobilize people. It was initially very small steps,” Zaw says. “We had to ask permission for the gallery. It wasn’t easy to get permission but once we did we had more freedom to engage how we wanted.”
The exhibits showed the importance of the river and what the country stood to lose if the dam went through. In a nation where there was little use of email, social media, or technological infrastructure, Zaw and others took risks to print and share “unauthorized” materials and traveled around the country to spread them. The exhibits turned into a national movement that spoke through art.
The campaign paid off in 2011, when a new more democratic parliament began to loosen some censorship restrictions, allowing journalists to write about the movement. The campaign gained a critical mass, and the new president halted construction.
“The pressure that reached the government was knowing that most people in the country don’t want the dam and all of these people are now talking about it,” Zaw says.
The outcome is still in the balance today, because a new government coming to power in 2015 could still reverse course and move forward. But Zaw is optimistic, because there is already huge pressure that has mounted. “People are motivated, people are aware,” he says.