Myint Zaw, author and environmental activist

During the pandemic, we wondered out loud in various online discussions: How much power do we have as individual activists, artists and writers? Are we powerless against institutions and structures? In other words, does nothing we do matter? Or can institutions and structures change when individuals engage in agency? In other words, does everything we do matter?

By Myint Zaw

Myint Zaw © Myint Zaw

July 2020

In the last week of April, I met a friend from Shan State of Myanmar who lives in an area not far from the Golden Triangle, once famous for opium trade. Knowing him as a devoted advocate for opium farmers in the area, I queried him about the situation of said farmers during the ongoing global pandemic. He told me that raw opium prices collapsed due to the lockdown, and with that and travel restrictions, farmers are struggling to make ends meet.
I wondered who might sympathize with opium farmers’ hard life during the global pandemic, as most people likely identify them as belonging to some kind of underworld. Thanks to my friend, I have long known about the lives of these opium farmers, and understand the situation they are in. When you live in rough and remote mountains which do not give you any access to the market, when steep slopes and poor soil structure do not allow you to grow most of conventional crops, raw opium is the only available option for curing most of your ills. When you understand that, you will start to have some sympathy for them.
To their troubles, you can add constant fighting, exploitation and oppression by the military, ethic armies and different militias and you will get a picture of these marginal people from a peripheral land. After all, this is a country that has not seen a single year of peace at least since Independence. My friend, who tries to shed light on the lives of these people will say, when and wherever he is given a chance to talk, “My friend, this is a social justice issue at heart, regardless of your debates on legal or illegal, or your rhetoric about drug-free society. These people are opium farmers to whom nobody is considering bringing social justice, to improve their lives and to recognize their culture and tradition.“
In the past three to four months of global pandemic, I have been thinking a lot about social justice issues globally, and in my country. As an activist and a writer, I have penned several articles for local newspapers about social and environmental justice and inequality. But I must confess that the life of the opium farmers in the remote mountains of Burma did not occur to me until I met with my friend and started a casual conservation.
From Yangon, the urban center of Burma, I have participated in a growing number of zoom meetings and web seminars to talk about trying to make sense of what is happening to our world, and how to change it for the better. I quite often end up feeling frustrated and hopeless.
Surprisingly, my friend, who lives and works in remote regions with these marginalized people, seems more upbeat than me. He said opium farmers have been in great pain since the nation’s border was drawn ‑ armed militia have been fighting for the control of territory and revenue. Modern notions of legality and illegality bring further suppression of these downtrodden people. (Yes, they are still poor, growing opium only helps them to survive, not to escape from poverty.) But even if we legalized opium farming, my friend is not sure that it would help these farmers to discard the bondage of poverty. “When it becomes legal, the market, capital, and the elite will move in to make profit. The current growers will still be on the margins,” he said. “Under a capitalist system, nothing is so easy, my friend, let’s continue our fight for social justice even in this difficult time,” he encouraged me.

June 2020

After three months of staying at home, my fellow activists and I ventured out to meet in person after weeks of unsatisfying online communication. Civil society activists from various parts of the country gathered in a rural area. For a few days, we got to do a lot of talking about the state of our country, especially about the shrinking space of civil society and the faltering political transition. We also shared local news, and soon we realized that what we know as the ‘shock doctrine’ is at work in ruthless efficiency even under pandemic conditions. In other words, business elites and authorities have been making reckless investment deals, and land grabbing is continuing in many places. This is a very convenient time for them, as local people cannot gather in groups of more than five, and mobilization cannot happen in the context of pandemic restrictions.
The power of social movement originates from people coming together against elite interests and oppression. Now, during the pandemic, this power is being taken away from the people for real and perceived public health reasons. The people need to stay in place for the common good. Paradoxically, intrusion into public life and common property has not stopped because of the occurrence of the pandemic.
At our meeting, we discussed about how to push back against the government and elite narratives on development. This is a constant effort on our part, and a worn-out script. Growing inequality, irrevocable damage to natural ecosystems, rising poverty, and the vulnerability of most people are in strong evidence, and show that trickledown, extractive development models are not working and have not brought wellbeing and peace to the affected communities. Yet the government and their discourses are still trying to convince us that this is the only way to go ‑ investment, extraction, GDP, etc.
Once, my friend, who works to support opium farmers and advocate drug policy changes, explained to me the failure of the war on drugs and other harsh measures in the fight against drug abuse. There are several progressive drug policy proposals that### aim to reduce harm in non-punitive ways. Normally, most authorities are reluctant to adopt these policy measures and take the same old approach of hard measure to punish the users and farmers, etc., although it has not improved the situation. My friend shared with me the questions he has been raising in such situations: “We know what did not work, why then take the same road? Why not try a new approach, whether or not it may work? What we know for sure is that taking the same old road does not work.”
From our gathering with civil society members, we tried to look at what happened during the pandemic with regard to cutting deals and resource grabbing. We again find ourselves preparing to argue against all these false dichotomies about environment and development, pro-business and pro-people, progress and tradition, and all these false equations about extraction equaling employment and elite wealth equaling public wellbeing. For a short-hand argument, normally I borrow my friend’s point: “We know what does not work.”  

May 2020

Most of us grew up under military rule. In 2011, the country’s political system changed, and the opposition party won the majority of seats in the 2015 election. Sadly, new government cannot escape from what has been called the “paradigm trap”: follow the same road of trickle-down economics and ally with powerful elites while civil society groups are pushed back as a distraction whenever they advocate for local issues and problems. Our friends from civil society movements who participated in the 2015 election and became members of parliament rarely sidestep from their party line. We feel lost. Does institutional structure override individual agency? We have been grappling with these questions for a few years now.
During the pandemic, we wondered out loud in various online discussions in light of the general election to be held in early November this year: How much power do we have as individual activists, artists and writers? Are we powerless against institutions and structures? In other words, does nothing we do matter? Or can institutions and structures change when individuals engage in agency? In other words, does everything we do matter?
A respected writer in our discussion circle shared the idea that wisdom may be lost in institutions (he refers to David Bohm who asks “do institutions have wisdom?”). Nevertheless, individuals may not be strong enough to create change. What we might aim for is a community in which the rigidity of the institution is not so strong, and individual agency can flourish.
While the world has been standing still since March due to the pandemic, thousands of migrant workers from neighboring countries came back to Burma. The government arranged to build several checkpoints to control and monitor these returnees as per their usual bureaucratic playbook. Without denying the need for such measures, we soon realized that not all returnees passed the government checkpoint and people could even bribe guards to evade restrictions without proper screening or quarantine measures.
Then we saw hundreds of villages in which local communities mobilized preventive measures in a spontaneous manner, building temporary shelters, usually near the entrance of their villages. These seemed to be very effective, as most return. They could take shelter for a few weeks near their village, while acquiring support from the community during the quarantine period. Institutions/bureaucracy may have a head (calculation about what to do etc.) but they may lack heart (compassion, support, etc.). Individual village community arrangements seem to have both in this case.
What we came to understand is that our political system might not get better, or we may not break the chokehold of the military-industrial elite. However, we can build a community of people with wisdom and compassion. This may be the only possible way forward in this world of crisis.

April 2020

Burmese New Year usually falls in mid-April, with the water festival and a huge celebration. This past April, everything turned quiet and people stayed at home, at least in urban areas.
I tried to finish a small book on the Coronavirus and its connection to habitat destruction, the capitalist economic system, and human intrusion in natural places. This is my small effort to counter all the rumors about the virus that are flying over social media. Also, in mid-April, I read news about coronavirus found in bats in Burma. It worried me based on what I had learned about the virus, and about conditions making spread more likely in this country. We are losing natural habitats; people are intruding into the forest and other natural places in the name of extraction. This creates a perfect match for human and virus interaction. The government has already allowed for several industrial farming projects and there are many more permissions to come, especially for the Chinese market in the form of Chinese investments in Burma. Industrial faming is known for amplifying contagious viruses. Railroads and other infrastructure projects along the planned China-Myanmar Economic Corridor are planned to facilitate these extractions, and many business deals have been struck at the expense of community resiliency.
It seems that after the pandemic, we may stick to the extractive, trickle-down economic system. Communities in various areas have long been fighting for social justice, wellbeing, and resilience. Even from the safe corner of our home, a sense of fatigue sets in when we look ahead. Not because of pandemic health concern, but because of how it could drag down our fight for social justice.
“What we need is art”, said an elder writer in one of our discussions, while playing a piece of traditional Burmese music. He remarked that “you cannot go far if you do not replenish your movement with art and creativity.” That is why art is always a crucial part of our social movements and social change. “Try to create something,” he encouraged us; he himself has been writing books on land and poverty. I know that another friend of mine, a songwriter across the street, created something new, and the same is true of another friend who is a painter living downtown. I myself continued to write two more small books and distributed them online, as did several of my artist friends.
While we were disappointed about being stuck at home due to the pandemic, political and business interests were rushing to exploit the situation and moving quickly forward. However, taking a deeper look, we are not stopping either. In the words of Toni Morrison, “there is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” With our art and our movements flowing, we pursue social justice, which for us is to pursue human dignity. Sooner or later, we will meet our artists, our civil society activists, in person. I will meet again with my friend living in the remote mountains, who works for the rights and dignity of local opium farmers.