“Be silent, don’t shout,” they said.
My name is Moon Nay Li. I am the General Secretary of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand where I have worked for 14 years with Kachin women and communities in Burma and Thailand to respond to social and economic issues and be able to participate in decision making at all levels. As part of the Burma/Myanmar civil society, I have witnessed many changes in the past years and months. I work in remote areas of Burma and it has become more difficult to talk about political issues. However, I see civil society becoming braver than before. We are now more united in the movement but the government does not support us.
After the 2010 elections, many civil society organizations (CSOs) were more aware of the political situation in Burma. We know that we have to be involved for political change to happen or to have any guarantee for ethnic rights and equality. On the other hand, we are facing a lot of risks and challenges fighting for these changes, even though we currently have a civilian government.
My networks and I receive threats and pressure from authorities including the police, military and local government officials who try to crack down on our movement. In 1988, it was the military that cracked down on demonstrations. Now, they use the police to carry out the same violence. The police are allowed to commit any violence against civilians. No one can protect us. In my state, they use both, the military and the police to control us when we rise up. We were walking on the street and the police were watching and following us.
There are many restrictions. If we want to do a big event, we have to file a report with the police officials in the city. They tell us “You can walk on the street but be silent, don’t shout. Use only one banner. Don’t use a lot of banner or posters and keep silent.” Early this year, we organized a march to celebrate International Women Day. Although we were told to be silent, we shouted because it is our right to do so. Then police officers came to talk to our leaders. They asked many questions and gave a warning to our leaders. It is very difficult to mobilize people when the authorities threaten the very people who do the mobilizing.
According to the current constitution, we have no freedom of assembly and association in Burma. The new civilian government recently cracked down on the farmer rights movement while they were walking to Nay Pi Taw, the capital city. There is no law to protect human rights activists. Morever, they use the law to control us, so we cannot even freely express ourselves on social media. The situation is very bad in Kachin State and everywhere in Burma.
Local authorities used to come to my family’s home and ask about me, but now I am outside of the country. They can do nothing. Still, my email and my organization website were hacked when we launched our recent human rights report.
In my country, development is a nice word. The government told us that development is always good for the people. They say when development happens, it is always for the good of the people and nobody should complain about development projects. We cannot ask further questions and there is no consultation with local people. I have never seen any development plan from the government. We only find out about projects when they have already started. When people question why the government is involved in a particular project, they respond that development is for everyone and therefore, we cannot complain. We can even directly and openly talk about human rights abuses but not about development. Development is more difficult to resist.
Now companies, especially Chinese companies, talk about development but their development means taking all benefits from the community. There is very little real development, but the companies take resources like wood and gold from us. In Kachin State, many natural resources have been diminished because the government gave permission to a company to exploit them. They never care about local voices. We have no opportunity to get involved in the process or even know about development project in advance. Everything is decided for us. They threaten us if we try to say anything and as a result, most people are too scared to talk about it.
For example, in the case of the Myitsone Dam, only after forced relocation of people did we know what was happening. There was no way for us to get information in advance. People against the project say no to dams but the government is not listening. The company never cared about us because the company and project areas are being protected by the government security force.
You might wonder- have we been consulted? The World Bank has said they organized consultation meetings but I cannot call those meetings consultations. Project planners only talked about their plans and what they want to do. No one could complain or give any input and comments. In some meetings that were organized by local authorities, they only talked about their plans and our opinions were not welcome.
Civil society in Burma has a better relationship with members of parliament who were previously activists from community based organizations and who were former political prisoners. They understand us and give us more space to work with them. On some levels, things have improved in terms of engagement, but the higher levels of government do not support civil society. We have to lobby the government to understand us.
However, our biggest problem is that the military is still controlling everything. The military has power over the government. The military has committed human rights violations but the current government doesn’t want to challenge that. It is very clear that the government does not wish to be involved in human rights abuses perpetrated by the military. How can we find justice for our people? Internally displaced people and refugees cannot go back home because it is not safe. There are so many land mines and ongoing conflicts. In such circumstances, the government does not permit direct support to internally displaced persons. If you want to contribute humanitarian aid, it has to go through the central government but how could those resources reach people in remote areas.
I would like to share my story with other activists and communities facing similar situations. We need to build more networks among civil society and outsiders, especially in the international community and media. In this kind of situation, when something happens, the media and the international community can support us. It is important for the media to know about what is really happening. We can also learn from the experiences of other communities, like when I participated in IAP’s Global Advocacy Team. Collaboration is key to our work.
In Burma, we want democratic federalism so every state government may have the authority to make decisions. Now everything is controlled by the central government and they do not know anything about our plans and desires. They only see money and benefits. In fact, many human rights violations are caused by so-called development and foreign investment.
Lastly, I want to say, please halt big development projects until we solve the civil war and ethnic problems, because big development projects worsen the situation in conflict areas. International investors may like it when the government promotes investment, but it has proved to be very bad for the people.