By Ellen Lomonico
This interview was conducted on January 18, prior to the military coup d’état in Myanmar* on February 1, 2021. Since then, we have been in contact with the three Burmese Prize winners—Ka Hsaw Wa (1999), Myint Zaw (2015), and Paul Sein Twa (2020)—and are monitoring their safety.
Smiling and exuding boundless energy, Ka Hsaw Wa (Myanmar, 1999) logged on to our video conferencing call. His upbeat personality marked a sharp contrast to the pain and suffering he would share with us later—personal experiences on the Thai-Burmese border that would launch his lifelong career as an environmental and human rights advocate.
In the early 1990s, Ka Hsaw Wa put himself in great personal danger to document crimes against the environment and humanity along the Thai-Burmese border. As a young adult, he was tortured, forced to flee his home, and compelled to hide in the rainforest. During this time, Ka Hsaw Wa would witness NGOs helicoptering into Myanmar to support environmental and human rights work in the region. “How can you focus on just one issue?” Ka Hsaw Wa questioned. As he documented the conflict on the ground and interviewed people throughout the militarized zone, he learned that environmental and human rights abuses were overlapping, if not synonymous.
Today, Ka Ksaw Wa is the co-founder and executive director of EarthRights International, a nonprofit organization that wields the power of law and people in defense of the environment and human rights—“earth rights.” What began as a small group of lawyers taking on a monolithic oil company in Myanmar, EarthRights now boasts a diverse international staff of 60-plus and spans three continents. The NGO celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2020.
Community Representation Is Paramount
EarthRights is well-known for its legal cases against global corporations for crimes committed against local communities in the name of development. Drawing on his own personal experience, Ka Hsaw Wa is adamant that these cases are always firmly grounded in the needs of local people. “We are not superheroes who swoop into the community,” he emphatically stated. “I built this organization from my pain and my anger.”
Taking its mission directly from the needs of the communities it serves in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and beyond, EarthRights hosts numerous community training opportunities. A perfect example is the EarthRights school, a nine-month program that teaches communities how to advocate for themselves based on the laws and customs of their region. Combining field work and class work in an experiential learning course, the EarthRights school equips members of the community with tools to document crimes against people and the environment.
While EarthRights is “raising and empowering the community to be able to negotiate at the same level as a corporation,” Ka Hsaw Wa is mindful that the divide-and-conquer tactics often employed by large corporations do not directly translate to the inner-workings of a community. For example, EarthRights encourages a community-wide approach to eliminate instances of individual bribery. A combination of local knowledge, community empowerment, and legal expertise has made EarthRights successful in its litigation across the world.
While responding to community-driven cases from the Mekong River Basin to the Amazon River Basin, the EarthRights team realized that, despite differences in language, culture, and geography, corporations seeking to profit from natural resources use similar tactics, such as intimidation, violence, and corporate loopholes. Ka Hsaw Wa’s next dream is to build a framework for a global school, one in which legal best practices and successes can be shared and replicated across continents.
Continued Awareness for Myanmar
In 2020, the Goldman Prize recognized Paul Sein Twa, a close friend of Ka Hsaw Wa. Like Ka Hsaw Wa, Paul is also a member of Myanmar’s Indigenous Karen community, a group that has suffered a long history of discrimination. Ka Hsaw Wa looks forward to seeing how the Prize will provide a foundation for the fledgling Salween Peace Park and a platform for the Karen people. As he stated, “the world is now looking.”
On the subject of the Goldman Prize, Ka Hsaw Wa shared that the biggest gift of the Prize is intangible—it is legitimacy. “So many people can gain from the recognition of one person,” Ka Hsaw Wa reflected earnestly. The Prize motivated him to double down on his commitment to defending environmental and human rights.
Raising the Next Generation of Advocates
A lifelong activist, Ka Hsaw Wa’s children have been raised witnessing their father on the frontlines of the fight for justice. At times they have even joined in, like when Ka Hsaw Wa and his daughter were arrested during a climate protest outside the US Congress in January 2020.
Ka Hsaw Wa’s children have also traveled with him on trips to the Thai-Burmese border, witnessing the conflict zone and understanding their father’s personal struggle. (EarthRights staff and students also attend this trip annually, an example of how the NGO strives to contextualize and humanize the issues of its defendants.) “At the same time,” Ka Hsaw Wa laughed, “they’re still American kids.” That’s what so special about Ka Hsaw Wa—the depth of his compassion, moral conviction, and understanding of humanity still leaves space for simple joys, like having a clean home as his kids graduate from college and move out of the house.
*While there is considerable dispute over the proper name of the country, we used “Myanmar” throughout this article for the sake of simplicity, knowing that many prefer the traditional “Burma.”
This blog post is part of the Prize Winner Today series, a monthly installment that reports on the latest news and projects from past recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize. From reflections on the Prize to updates from the field, we’ll answer the question—what are these extraordinary individuals doing today?
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