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."
"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 crystalized 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.