Zaw became the creative engine in a public awareness campaign about the dam and the importance of the Irrawaddy River. He began organizing art exhibits—a strategic choice, given that galleries were among the few spaces where he could engage activists, scholars, artists and citizens while avoiding government scrutiny. The goal was to showcase the environmental, social, and cultural significance of the river—and what Myanmar stood to lose from the dam.
In a remarkable show of ingenuity and diligence, Zaw and his colleagues went about their work in a country with very little technological infrastructure and severe government restrictions. Email and social media had very little reach. Authors of unauthorized publications suffered harsh penalties, but Zaw and his colleagues took grave risks to print and distribute information without submitting it to government censors.
The series of art exhibits turned into a national advocacy movement, with people taking their own initiative to bring awareness to the issue. Artists began writing poems and songs about the river. Citizens spread pamphlets and DVDs about the dam in their own communities. A taxi ride in Yangon one day gave Zaw irrefutable evidence of how far the campaign had spread. The cab driver recognized Zaw as one of the people featured in a DVD he saw, and told him he’d made 20 copies and given them to his friends.
The growing movement attracted the attention of newly elected parliament members and local media, whose ability to cover social issues was gaining some breathing room with a new government in 2011. The campaign materials, which raised questions about the long-term environmental and social impacts of the dam and foreign investments, reached the upper echelons of government, including the vice president’s office.
In 2011, in what many see as evidence of hope for Myanmar’s fledgling democracy and the environmental movement, President Thein Sein halted the dam’s construction and vowed that the project would not proceed for as long as he’s in office. With Chinese investments rapidly expanding into foreign countries, the dam’s suspension provides an important case study for what happens when development is pushed through by governments without consulting its citizens.
The dam’s fate will be decided by Myanmar’s incoming president, with the elections happening in late 2015. However, given the widespread awareness of the dam, the government will no longer have the luxury of unilateral decision-making.