The historical background of Myanmar, previously called Burma, has so many twists and turns that it defies a simple recounting. The mix includes the toxic ramifications of British colonialism, ethnic tensions, ruthless dictatorship, and a heroic resister whose legacy is coming under attack.
While writing this story, I received a press bulletin from Amnesty International about renewed repression of dissidents, limits on free speech, abuse and voter disenfranchisement of Muslim Rohingya denizens, and new arrests of “prisoners of conscience.”
The subterfuges of the military, religious “leaders,” and others seeking to influence the election, stand in stark contrast to Zaw’s story. His efforts recount a simple tale of a fight for environmental justice against exploitation, with the goal of protecting a national treasure — the Irrawaddy River.
Zaw grew up along the banks of the Irrawaddy, which is 1,350 miles long and bisects the country. “The river and my childhood are one and the same,” Zaw has noted.
The Irrawaddy transports people and goods, is a source of irrigation, and sustains the livelihood of fishermen and farmers. The northern part is located in the lands that are home to the Kachin people, a Christian ethnic minority.
A Buddhist, Zaw’s connection to the river reflects his deeply felt reverence for nature. On a darker note, witnessing political prisoners traveling by boat on the river, returning home after being discharged from Pathein prison, helped to shape Zaw’s political awareness.
The Cyclone Nargis (2008), on record as the worst natural disaster to occur in Myanmar, was also a focal point in Zaw’s consciousness. In the delta region of the Irrawaddy, 130,000 people were killed as a result of the catastrophe. There was no immediate help from the government at the time of the crisis, and rebuilding efforts in the aftermath were limited.
Zaw traveled abroad to further his education, in response to the government shutdown of college campuses in the 1990s. He studied in Thailand, and then spent a year (2007-2008) in the United States where he attended the Berkley School of Journalism at the University of California.
Using his training as a photojournalist, Zaw began taking images of the Irrawaddy River. He captured life along the river, the culture of his country, and the ecological deterioration of the waterway. Zaw pictorially connected the dots between the well-being of the river and the people it nourished. He traveled to the ancient city of Bagan, home to 2,000 monuments including pagodas and temples, to illustrate how the country’s culture was “born on the Irrawaddy River.”
Photo: Courtesy of Myint Zaw
“I came to show the river in the context of our history,” Zaw has stated. With these emotions embedded in his psyche, it was not surprising that the building of the Myitsone Dam would become a focal point of his concerns in 2009.
Beyond the environmental impacts the dam would wreak upon the Irrawaddy River, a host of simmering conflicts crystallized in the debate about the dam.
The $3.6 billion project was put together with a lack of transparency. The players were the military Myanmar government and the China Power Investment Corporation. The Yuan province of China is designated to receive 90 percent of the electricity power, with the remaining 10 percent generated to benefit the Myanmar population.
Citizens of Myanmar already feel the weight and influence of Chinese investment monies. In 2011, China had 40 percent of all foreign investments in Myanmar, with fingers in both mining and oil interests. The Burmese population sees China’s economic agenda as taking precedence over their needs.
The economic, environmental, and ethical ramifications of the dam are multifold, particularly with 70 percent of Myanmar’s inhabitants living in rural areas. If the plans for the dam move forward, 18,000 additional people will be displaced and “relocated” to new villages.
Deeply affected would be the Kachin homeland. The originations of their cultural legacy would be submerged under water. The impact downstream in the delta area (called the “rice bowl of the country”) would have severe economic repercussions. The site is also in an area near an earthquake fault line.
Due to the repressive policies of the military dictatorship, whose many members have resurfaced in the pseudo-civilian government (The military gets to “appoint” 25 percent of the seats in Parliament.), outright criticism of the Myitsone was not an option.
Zaw came up with the concept of using exhibitions to challenge the future of the dam. Displaying his photography in a gallery, along with the visual works of other artists, would circumvent governmental rulings against gatherings. The word “dam” had been banned, so the euphemism “reservoir” took its place. The plan to use cultural venues to be instructive, while getting around censorship issues, blossomed.
The subject of the first exhibition was “water.” Zaw worked with two colleagues to move the agenda forward. They were Dr. Kyaw Thu Aung, a social activist whom he had met in 2003, and Ko Tar, a writer and publisher who visited the dam site with Zaw in 2009.
World Water Day became the impetus for a small exhibit. Art of the Watershed, mounted in Rangoon, was able to illustrate the negative impacts of the dam. Another show, Vanishing Treasures of Myanmar, looked at deforestation and the loss Bengal Tigers and other wildlife — many which had been trafficked surreptitiously to China.
Thu was drawn to Zaw’s interpersonal skills and out-of-the-box thinking. “He was a catalyst,” said Thu. In an interview with Will Parrinello of the Mill Valley Film Group (producers of The New Environmentalists), Thu said, “We used art to bypass the educational void in the population.” The result was a visceral response from a full range of different elements within Burmese society — including ethnic minorities, community leaders, monks, nuns, farmers, and workers. Eventually, government officials and members of Parliament came to see the work on display.
As Zaw’s agenda for disseminating information progressed, speeches delivered in tandem with the exhibits became part of the presentations. They were recorded and found their way onto DVDs, which were then copied and passed from hand to hand. Leaflets and books were also distributed.
The integrity of the river and the pushback against the dam became a national movement.
President U Thein Sein realized that the voice of the people could not be ignored. In September 2011, he rejected moving forward on completion of the dam during his term in office. “It was a moment when civil society understood it could influence and affect the country’s policy,” said Zaw.
I reached out by e-mail to Min Zin, writer on Burma/Myanmar (who also explained the issues around the country’s renaming), for his insights into how the election results would impact the future of the Myitsone Dam. Zin serves as a Myanmar expert for NGOs and think tanks.
He responded, “The issue will come up again in the aftermath of the election when the new government takes over the office in March 2016. It will be a big test, especially if it is an opposition NLD-led administration. We are likely to see a more assertive civil society, in their struggle against injustice and rights violation.”
At the time of his interview with Parrinello, Zaw reflected about what might happen post-election. “Whoever wins may try to restart the Myitsone project. But they will face very strong opposition from the people, because the people now have the facts and an understanding of the issues. The next president will not be able to turn away from the people’s desires, or move forward on this issue lightly.”
The New Environmentalists: From Myanmar to Scotland
Within the two-hour time frame of the third Republican debate, only one question was posed about climate change. Moderator John Harwood directed his query to Gov. Chris Christie. I was waiting for a reply that would reflect an understanding of the havoc extreme weather can wreak. Superstorm Sandy decimated swaths of New Jersey, as 346,000 homes were badly damaged or destroyed.
In answering, Christie immediately referenced Hillary Clinton, President Obama, and John Kerry in the negative, stating that their panacea was “to put more taxes on it.” When pressed, he suggested, “investing in all types of energy.” Christie believes that climate change is real (only one in four of the fourteen candidates), and a result of human activity — sort of. He touted his state as a leader in solar energy, while still advocating the use of oil…“absolutely.”
And that was it for the night.
Despite the numerous talking points delivered that were off-topic, no one took the opportunity to reference the economic benefits of renewable energy production on job creation.
Perhaps if the field of candidates were up to date on the latest stats, they would know that 76 percent of Americans subscribe to the scientific findings on climate change.
The University of Texas at Austin has reviewed the numbers for several years in an Energy Poll survey, tracking voter opinion. In the spring of 2012, 45 percent of Republicans accepted the science of climate change. Now, in the fall of 2015, the number has climbed to 59 percent.
When Republican voters were asked to weigh in on whether a candidate’s stance on demanding utility companies set forth percentile requirements mandating the use of “renewable sources,” 51 percent responded that they would be “more likely to support” such a candidate.
The two top front-runners at this time, Dr. Ben Carson and Donald Trump, do not believe that climate change is a reality. Carson has called the dialogue, “Irrelevant.” None of the top-of-the-card players has stated they will combat climate change if elected, nor have they presented an energy platform geared to reducing toxic emissions. They all support the Keystone Pipeline.
One would think that with the repeated call to awareness from the military community about how the fallout from climate change will lead to global instability, the candidates would be less tone deaf. However, a gleaning of core beliefs by the contenders shows otherwise:
Ted Cruz: Recently set the Internet buzzing with his sound bite from an interview with Glenn Beck. He said, “Climate change is not science. It’s religion.” He receives generous funding from the Kochs, and publicly denigrated climate change at one of their events in August 2105.
Marco Rubio: Rubio specifically pits the environment against the economy. He supports offshore gas and oil drilling, would block the Clean Power Plan, and would void the federal regulations on fracking. He is in line to become a top recipient of Koch funding.
Mike Huckabee: Believes that the science is “not settled.”
John Kasich: For every step he takes forward, he takes two backwards. He acknowledges climate change, but then stated in a Meet the Press interview, “We don’t want to destroy people’s jobs, based on some theory that is not proven.” Kasich favors drilling for oil on federal lands and opposes the EPA Clean Power Plan. He would roll back federal fracking regulations.
Carly Fiorina: Has repeatedly suggested, “A single nation acting alone [on climate change] can make no difference at all.” This boils down to positing that the United States should not be a world leader on the climate front, nor take any initiatives since we can’t control what other countries are doing. (Scary, when you think that the next President will be setting the agenda for international climate talks.) Fiorina supports the use of gas and nuclear energy, and touts the benefits of “clean” coal. She believes that regulations on the environmental front can only be detrimental to the economy, but she does espouse tax credits for renewable energy.
Jeb Bush: Would rescind the ban on natural gas and oil exports. He backs using an energy source mix that includes coal, nuclear, and renewables. He has underscored that if he makes it to the White House, he would implement a reversal of the Clean Power Plan put forth by the EPA.
Rand Paul: Hailing from the coal state of Kentucky may be why Paul is against setting a national goal that would commit to establishing 25 percent of all electricity is resourced from renewables by 2025. Along similar lines, he also nixed legislation supporting the installation of solar panels.
As far as any hopes that Rep. Paul Ryan will bring in a new point of view when he takes over the leadership of the House, it’s doubtful. His environmental rating from the League of Conservation Voters is dismal — a Lifetime Score of 12 percent.
The American people are not out of step with the reality of climate change — these candidates are.
This article originally appeared on the website Moms Clean Air Force
Thanks to social media, consumers are able to reach out to brands and directly express their pleasure — or displeasure — with a company’s product. I frequently react to advertisements that annoy my sensibilities via Twitter (I give shout outs, too!), using the hashtag #fem2. This summer’s Schick ad, with three bikini-clad young women standing behind bush-type trees in front of their pubic area, irritated me to no end.
Now, co-founders Amy-Willard Cross and Andrea Rudert have created BUY UP Index, a mobile app which drills down on a “company’s demonstrated commitment to gender equality.” The goal is to put in place a rating system that will grade well-known entities on four main areas:
I contacted Cross via e-mail to learn more. Currently, twelve industries are under the microscope, which includes approximately 130 companies and 700 brands. BUY UP aggregates its data from open source research, such as annual reports. Cross told me that 200 companies were contacted, but returned calls were sparse. “Most companies have not replied to our request for information, or even fact checking,” she said.
So much for transparency.
However, BUY UP did get replies from several top companies — GM, Coach, and Apple among them.
One would think that with female consumers comprising 85 percent of purchasing decisions, companies would be more forthcoming. The app, as envisioned, has the potential to impact their mindset and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) agendas.
Plenty has been written about the lack of female leadership at the helm (4.6 percent of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies) and in the boardroom (American women hold 16.9 percent of seats. Norway’s number is 40.5 percent).
Many women feel passionately about the way in which organizations operate with regard to their employment practices, such as maternity leave or sick days. I, for my part, have strong concerns about how outdated stereotypical ad imagery impacts the public perception of women, while reinforcing societal limitations.
I downloaded the BUY UP Index to get a firsthand experience and perused the categories of Beauty, Beverages, Cellphones, and Household. The remaining areas of examination are on target to be uploaded by the end of 2015.
The home page features a search bar, three top performers, and the uploaded industries. I looked to see if Schick had been vetted. They weren’t, but I was informed that I could request a brand for submission.
The three top performers at that time were Avon, Gap, and Google. They each got a grade of A, but apparently, not all As are created equal. Google received the top of the line (four As), with great “tracked” maternity leave and a nod to $40 million in donations to women’s non-profits. However, it was noted that there had been “controversies over sexual harassment.” Avon’s B on scores for their advertising balanced out their kudos for having a board with 63 percent women. Gap’s grade was brought down with a C regarding their employee score — although it excels at leadership.
On the BUY UP website, there is an in depth explanation of the methodology used to arrive at the numerical point rating. Cross clarified, “To get an A on an employee score, a company must report a maternity leave of at least seven weeks. Gap does do employee diversity reporting and provides programs for women employees (family), but it does not report supplier diversity or disclose its parental leave. It has it, but does not release the information.” She added, “I have been trying to persuade them.”
Looking through the list, I came across Nestlé. This is a company that gets recognition at both ends of the spectrum — either as “creating value for society” or as a corporate villain. Their grade was an A. Cross told me, “We don’t show non-gender information in the grades, but we do a search for any controversy that would affect women customers and make a note of that in the text. This is a tight gender lens — so we can’t do it all.” This was reflected in the Nestlé score, which pointed to “ground breaking parental leave policy in 2015” and the company’s signature on the UN’s Women’s Empowerment Principles. However, their negative record on pushing their formula in Africa was clearly underscored.
I asked Cross about her evolution from writer and editor to tech entrepreneur. “I wanted to use my reporting and researching journalistic skills to advance women,” she informed me. “I realized that data is the one thing that we could own.” Cross outlined her top goal as showing “the power of women in the economy,” and using “that power to make change that many women desire.” Cross emphasized the issue of guaranteed maternity leave is high on her personal list.
I particularly liked that after checking out the “metrics” on a business, there is a feature called “Have Your Say.” This allows users to tell those being vetted what would make you more likely to buy their brands. The “Other” option allows for original thoughts.
There is plenty on the horizon for BUY UP. High scoring companies will be “invited” to communicate with users, and there will be links to “product discovery.” Most importantly, as the BUY UP tag line states, women will have, “Power in Your Wallet.”
Pretty good traction from a downloadable app!
This article originally appeared on the website Ravishly.com
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