From my seat in a bustling sidewalk restaurant in Yangon, Burma, it’s hard to imagine these same streets just 20 years ago. In August 1988, thousands of students, fed up with years of repressive military rule, protested for democracy and were brutally slaughtered by government machine guns. Yesterday’s fair election of opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to Parliament is a promising step for Burma, but the road to true democracy remains long.
On this day, I’m joined by two soft-spoken, smiling graduate students in their mid-twenties, Tin and Htet, who goes by the nickname “Pinkgold.” We converse freely in English about their environmental activism amid the restaurant’s clatter— a freedom that would have been impossible not long ago because of the threat of government spies. As I fumble with my chopsticks, they begin to tell me what it’s like to organize in one of the most repressive countries in the world.
Htet has been passionate about social issues from an early age. But it wasn’t until 2010, when government restrictions began to ease, that she felt there might be enough political space for organizing to make a real difference. She formed Myanmar Youths In Action (MIYA), which seeks to empower young people to tackle some of the country’s most pressing issues, including environment, health, and poverty. For their inaugural event, they joined with thousands around the world for 350.org’s 10/10/10 Global Work Party by planting 50 trees.
In a country where most people scrape by on less than a dollar a day, why did they decide that the environment was the most pressing issue facing the youth of Myanmar? For Htet, the answer is obvious: “Young people know that our entire future depends on a safe climate and clean environment.”
There seems to be an intuitive ability to connect the dots and recognize that climate change is real and urgent. The largest wake-up call was in 2008 when a super-powered storm, Cyclone Nargis, devastated the country. An estimated 138,000 perished in the flood waters when the government refused to admit foreign emergency aid. In an agricultural subsistence economy, climate change is a matter of life and death.
“What has been the biggest factor in overcoming challenges?” I ask. Tin adjusts her glasses. Facebook, she says.
Concentrated groups of students are one of the greatest threats to a repressive regime. Campuses are intentionally dispersed, extracurricular groups are banned, and until recently, the simple act of passing out fliers could land you in prison. The internet is the new student union. She speculates that the anonymity of cyberspace has allowed people, for the first time in decades, to freely exchange ideas in a public forum. Of course, the internet has its limitations in a country where 20% of households don’t even have electricity, and the regime, until the last few months, had blocked Youtube and Twitter.
Both Tin and Pinkgold are also prolific bloggers, intentionally reaching out to international audiences. Tin’s blog was even linked by the New York Times during the so-called called Saffron Revolution of 2007 as a credible source when foreign journalists were shut out.
They use the internet to demonstrate popular opinion at a time when the regime is increasingly worried about its image. While in the West we might groan to see another online petition in our inbox, this tool has begun to make a significant impact on Myanmar’s environmental policy. Recently, the regime has responded to public opinion by dramatically reversing plans for two massive industrial projects: a new coal plant and a Chinese plan to dam the legendary Irrawaddy. In August 2011, they used Facebook to advertise the first ever national Myanmar Youth Conference.
Htet and Tin face challenges not only with outreach but with training, funding and time. Their projects are funded largely by membership dues of 3,000 kyat a month, about three dollars. Because they work full time and go to school, they dedicate their entire weekends volunteering for MIYA. Your contribution of even $5 goes a really long way.
During my dinner with Htet and Tin, I’m impressed with their tenacity in the face of such challenges and reminded that the fossil fuel gluttony of my country is responsible for the climate impacts they feel today. It also raises some questions: How can we continue to use technology to unite across borders and share organizing tools in new, innovative ways? How can we transform online chatter into offline action? How can we in the West use our relative freedoms to conduct even bolder actions that aren’t possible in many countries?
Rather than being pacified by our privilege, we can be radicalized by its possibilities.