Interview with Kyaw Ye Htet and Zay Lin Mon from Myanmar
Climate change is going to have severe impacts on Myanmar, as sea level rise threatens vast stretches of low-lying land, especially in the Irrawaddy Delta, and deforestation continues on a large scale in the hill areas. At the same time, climate change and adaptation policy has remained largely the business of the government and its development partners. Most people in Myanmar feel helpless about climate change, just as they feel helpless about natural disasters, as both issues are overshadowed by the necessity of making a living in what is still one of the world’s least developed countries. However, a few voices have begun to criticize the status quo, among them groups of youth that have been encouraged by the global Fridays for Future movement. Heinrich Böll Foundation Yangon Office, Myanmar talked to two of them.
How did “Strike for Climate Myanmar” start?
We are a group of individuals from youth and environmental organizations and student unions. We have been organizing climate strikes here in Myanmar since May 24, 2019. We started by joining the second global climate strike organized by Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion and some other environmental organizations. We call our movement “Strike for Climate Myanmar.”
How does “Strike for Climate Myanmar” relate to the global climate strike movement?
At first, we called our movement “Fridays for Future Myanmar” because we were inspired by the Fridays for Future movement initiated by Greta Thunberg. But it was difficult for us to organize climate strikes only on Fridays, because some of our people are working at NGOs and they have to go to the office Monday to Friday. Thus, we decided to name the movement “Strike for Climate Myanmar” – and to campaign not only on Fridays, but also on other days, especially Saturdays and Sundays. On June 5, we did campaign at a World Environment Day event that was organized by the Yangon regional government and also a climate strike (a march in downtown Yangon) to mark World Environment Day.
In the global movement, there are two major groups: The first one, Fridays for Future, consists primarily of very young people, teenagers, who have been inspired by Greta Thunberg. Fridays for Future mainly involves high school students. And in the UK, there’s Extinction Rebellion, a movement with more adult members. They have a good relationship, but they are separate groups. We endorse both, Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion.
What are your demands?
We have three main objectives for the movement.
First, we demand that the government recognizes that the climate crisis is happening here in Myanmar and in the world, and that they take action against the climate crisis.
Secondly, we demand that the government immediately stops mega-projects that harm the environment and the climate, especially the Myitsone Dam hydroelectric project1 and coal-powered industries.
And third, we demand public participation from different sectors to tackle the climate crisis.
What concrete action do you expect from the government?
We demand that the government and parliament declare a climate emergency or officially recognize that the climate crisis is happening. And we demand that the government immediately stop projects that cause environmental breakdown and commits to never resuming these projects.
How do you operate?
We are about 20 people in the organizing group and, depending on the day, our number can increase to 30 or 50.
Local authorities will often ban our protests or place restrictions on what we can do. Most people in Myanmar don’t want to join as long as we don’t have permission. Most people in this country, especially the adults, think that striking is a bad thing. They just see it as an action by jobless people and gypsies. The common perception here in Myanmar is that if someone is staging a strike or protest, then that person is very lazy and wants more welfare support from the government. That kind of perspective is affecting our movement.
People may also think that we are doing this for personal gain, in order to get money or the support of a particular organization.
On the other hand, we also get support from some people who are aware of environmental and climate issues and from some organizations.
Do you get outside support?
When we organized the movement, the organizing team decided to be independent in terms of finance. We do not need much funds to do climate strikes, and we decided not to apply for financial support. However, we accept and get technical support, such as training and some consultations. Once we formed our group, we contacted the Fridays for Future core group, which is based in Europe. They have a website to register local climate strike movements. We registered our movement there, so that they are aware of us, and later they contacted us for further collaboration.
Some organizations like 350.org and Greenpeace are also playing important roles in supporting climate strikes. They provide technical assistance, especially with mobilizing. They have regional offices and contacts with local stakeholders. The 350.org East Asia office contacted us and offered training and to connect us with other climate strike mobilizers. Also, some local organizations here in Myanmar are offering technical assistance and further collaboration. We are now discussing partnering with Turning Tables Myanmar, an organization that provides training to young musicians and that wants to raise awareness through music.
We are working with them to create a Myanmar climate anthem, a new song with new music. We would like to use this anthem for the global climate strike that will take place between September 20–27.
What do you actually do when you strike for climate?
There have been five climate strikes in Yangon. In our strikes, folks joined us and sang songs. A poet also joined and recited poems about the environment. We shouted our demands: no coal, no mega-dams, climate action now. It’s almost the same in all climate strikes – we just organize activities and demonstrations.
We follow some general agreements or ground rules of the global climate strike movement: We do not cover our faces, we do not use violent action. In Myanmar, we also realize that we need to do other activities such as in-door training and workshops, yet we will not do this under the name of Climate Strike. Instead, we plan to establish a network called “Alliance for Climate Action.”
But you don’t use Extinction Rebellion’s methods such as blocking the traffic?
[laughing] No. Maybe we should? Here, the traffic is super busy already. Since we have just started and are trying to get public support, we do not promote activities that the general public would not be happy with. But that doesn’t mean we will never use such methods.
How do people, bystanders, parents and the government react?
Some people think that we get money from Western NGOs, and one government official that we talked to said, “You do this as a project of UNEP,” which made us really mad. There are people who say bad things. We always inform the government about our strikes in accordance with the peaceful assembly law, just to avoid conflict with the police, and for the sake of the people who join us, although we, individually, do not agree with this law. For each strike, we have to inform the police and the local authorities 48 hours in advance. However, they never grant us permission, and whenever there is a protest, there will be police and somebody from the Special Branch (police informers) – and they will record who is participating in the protest and keep track of us. If they don’t grant us permission, they can always sue us based on Article 20 [of the Right to Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act].
They do not have the right to refuse permission, yet they still do.
And you go ahead in spite of that?
Yes, we do.
… and then what happens?
Nothing special has happened yet, but there have been incidents such as in Tamwe in May 2018.2 There, a peaceful protest was organized, however the authorities refused permission, and when the day came, the police cracked down on the protesters. Subsequently, those people were prosecuted according to Article 20. Maybe they will do the same to us, we just don’t know.
What is climate change for you? What is your own experience?
As a personal story, I was born in the Irrawaddy Delta region. There, during Cyclone Nargis in 2008, many people were killed. Some were killed by Nargis and some were killed by the government, because the government failed to take emergency measures. I personally believe that some were killed by Nargis and some by the political system. It is hard to imagine the “The climate crisis is currently the biggest threat to all beings on earth” Myanmar 11 consequences when the next cyclone will strike the Delta or Rakhine. The government has done little to tackle the climate crisis. So, once the next major cyclone hits, we will probably just have to die. I think we will be killed by the storm and the government. That’s why I claim we are facing extinction – we in Myanmar and all people worldwide.
For me as a young environmental activist, the climate crisis is currently the biggest threat to all beings on earth. Climate change has been happening for many decades, and the governments and respective stakeholders have failed to tackle it, and they were unable control it. Now, as a consequence, we are facing a climate crisis.
We all need to take responsibility to tackle this climate crisis. The climate crisis is happening because of all of us – because of people. It is us who are exploiting the resources of this earth.
As a least developed country, and similar to other developing countries, Myanmar is very vulnerable to climate change. We do not have enough infrastructure, such as roads, buildings, information systems and so on. Therefore, once a natural disaster happens in a particular region, the people from this region will not know how to escape, and the government cannot save their lives. Myanmar is very vulnerable, because of this lack of infrastructure, information, and education, however the government also lacks the political will to protect people from disasters.
What about global climate justice?
Climate change is a global matter. Even if the Myanmar government took action on climate while others didn’t, the effect would be negligible. This is why we collectively campaign for global climate action. In our manifest, we demand that the government recognizes that climate change is happening not only in Myanmar but in the entire world. Myanmar is part of ASEAN and part of the UN. They can advocate for regional climate action in ASEAN and other international forums.
In our neighborhood, China has well-developed industries and is a major polluter. If the Myanmar government is going to do its part for the climate, it will be able to ask China to take responsibility too.
If the government says, let’s build some coal power plants …
… this is not sustainable, because of CO2 emissions.
But what about dams – aren’t dams good for the climate?
No. I don’t really have a deep academic understanding, but as a young activist I think mega-dams will cause natural disasters. When the walls of a dam break, people living nearby will suffer. That is why we reject mega-dams; they are not sustainable.
So where should Myanmar get its power from?
There should be small hydro-electric projects, small dams – not very big ones that may harm the people. We also promote solar energy – in central Myanmar an NGO has already promoted solar for home. Also, we have a very long coastline where to produce wind energy.
What about the expansion of gas power that the government currently pursues?
Most of the gas pipelines are Chinese projects and have a political background. Coal or gas power is never meant for our country, as the energy produced will be sold cheaply to China or Thailand. This does not benefit our people; it benefits other countries.
Gas is also dangerous, as gas leakages could harm people.
What is the way forward?
Currently, we are networking, that is, we are trying to expand our network to other cities. We have a milestone – the third global climate strike in September 2019. For this, preparations are underway in different parts of the country.