Facing heavy government scrutiny and restricted use of tools like email or social media, 2015 Goldman Prize winner Myint Zaw launched a national movement that successfully stopped construction of the Myitsone Dam on Myanmar’s treasured Irrawaddy River. We sat down with Myint to find out how he did it.
Tell us about growing up in the river delta. Why is the Irrawaddy River so important to the surrounding communities?
“I grew up in a rural area, so the environment, forest, river and other things were always in my childhood experience and memories.”
Myint’s home village is based in the Irrawaddy delta, surrounded by the river on one side and the Rakhine mountain ridge on the other—a densely forested area with lots of biodiversity.
As a child, Myint swam in the river and climbed the neighboring mountains. Nature was a large part of his childhood. For years, he had a sense that the environment belonged to everyone.
“I first saw the [dam] plan in government owned newspaper. I was quite frightened, we were all quite frightened because we knew that this was a very critical water area and very important for local people.”
How did the idea of art exhibits occur to you? What role did Myanmar’s political climate play in choosing this approach?
“Back then, even the word ‘dam’ wasn’t allowed in the media. If we chose to write about the dam, we used the word ‘reservoir.’ As a journalist I know a little bit about messaging—how you can get across a message in a direct way. This was important… it was an issue that needed to be addressed in a very clever way.”
Myint and his colleagues began considering creative ways around this censorship and settled on the photo exhibition. With the appearance of a gallery, the exhibition became a place to disseminate information and answer questions about the effects of the Myitsone dam.
“When I came back from Berkeley I bought a camera. I took a lot of pictures of the delta and the other areas when I went around the country. Maybe because I had the camera it gave me the idea…
We used the art galleries as a space to mobilize citizens and bring different people in to talk. This movement gradually grew on its own momentum. We got small exhibitions and then we got bigger exhibitions. We tried to reach out to the Irrawaddy river area and show the photos from the area. Many community leaders started their own initiatives as well.”
“One thing that we know for sure is the awareness of the dam is quite widespread throughout the country and also in many communities. So whatever they deicide, they need to talk to the people and the majority of the people are going to protest…”