‘The Irrawaddy River Is Like a Mother’

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 15 June 2013

RANGOON — Had things turned out differently, Devi Thant Cin might have been a doctor. It was her childhood dream. But looking back nearly six decades later, she feels happy with the path she has chosen instead.

“It was just my childhood fantasy,” the 66-year old said with a smile. “Now I’m a conservationist by choice.”

As Burma’s reformist government opens up to international investors who eye its rich natural resources, environmental and social concerns are increasingly coming to the fore. But with the new space for civil society, the country’s environmental movement is also gaining momentum, and Devi Thant Cin has become one of its leading activists.

She is one of a handful of female campaigners who have been spearheading nationwide activities to protect Burma’s environment in recent years. Most prominent among their activities has been a campaign aimed at shutting down the controversial Myitsone hydropower dam.

The Chinese-backed proposal would dam the Irrawaddy at a site in northern Burma, blocking the flow of water and migrating fish species on the country’s largest river, which is a life line to millions of people downstream.

The environmental campaigns against the dam led to a nationwide public outcry, prompting President Thein Sein to suspend the project in 2011 until 2016, when his presidential term expires.

Devi Thant Cin speaks with reverence of the Irrawaddy River. “I want the Irrawaddy flows freely. The river is like a mother who feeds Burma’s citizens,” she said. “If anyone tries to resume the project, I will continue to protest.”

Although she is best known for being an environmentalist, she is also a princess and a direct descendant of King Thibaw, the last monarch of Burma of the Koung Boung Dynasty. Her father is the son of the king’s fourth princess.

She said that her father, who earned the nickname the ‘Red Prince’ for his belief in Marxism, taught her not be arrogant because of her royal blood, but to stand up for the poor and serve the people instead.

“I still believe in those basic ideologies and found out that they fit with environmental conservation,” Devi Thant Cin said, arguing that although the whole of society is vulnerable to the effects of climate change, the poor at the grass-roots level will be hardest-hit. The green movement, she added, helps protect them against these environmental risks.

“So being a conservationist gives me a chance to work for people,” she said during an interview in the small living room of her Rangoon house, which she shares with two other royal descendant families.

On the walls of the house, only a faded oil-painting of her great-grand parents and a black-and-white group photo of her great-aunts in full regalia serve as faint reminders of the family’s royal background.

Devi Thant Cin first started writing about environmental awareness in the early 2000s, when few in Burma had heard of these issues. She also began travelling through the country to give talks to farmers about the risk of using chemical fertilizers, while she spoke with students to inform the younger generation of environmental concerns.

Although she could have used the lingering public reverence for Burma’s last kings to aid her work, Devi Thant Cin has never done so. “It’s embarrassing to tell my audience that I’m a great grand-daughter of King Thibaw. Let them find about it by themselves,” she said. “What I’m doing is as important as who I am.”

In 2007 she began publishing Burma’s only environmental magazine ‘Aung Pin Lae’, enlisting the help of friends and fellow activists to keep the struggling publication afloat in order to inform the public of the global green movement and environmental degradation in the country.

“Environmental conservation is her life,” said Min Chit Naing, who has been the magazine’s editor since early 2012. Min Chit Naing, who previously worked as an environmental reporter at a local weekly, said he has known Devi Than Cin for several years, adding that her dedication was unwavering. “She even puts her family affairs on the back seat when it comes to the environment,” he said.

When public concerns over the Myitsone dam project intensified in 2011 and protests against the project became more frequent, Devi Thant Cin founded the Myanmar Green Network (MGN). She brought environmental campaigners and engineers together to provide scientific and technical evidence that would back up the protestors’ demand and show that cancellation of the project is justified.

In 2012, when another Chinese-backed project, the Letpadaung copper mine in northwestern Burma, sparked a huge local protest, MGN took the initiative to conduct local soil and water tests to determine how the mine’s run-off was affecting the local community’s health and environment.

The network submitted the results and experts’ suggestion on the project to the president, relevant authorities and a project investigation commission led by opposition leader and lawmaker Aung San Suu Kyi.

“I take my hat off for her, for she is very serious when it comes to environmental conservation,” said U Ohn, the chairman of MGN’s Forest Resource Environment Development and Conservation Association. “In spite of her royal background, she is not arrogant and is the one who fully drives the MGN.”

Asked if she is concerned about, or perhaps opposes, the rise in foreign investment in Burma, Devi Thant Cin says, “We have to welcome FDI, but at the same time we have to be aware of its exploitative nature.

“That’s why we keep repeating that we need to have strong rules and regulations for our environment, while welcoming foreign investors.”

Burma’s green movement has grown much stronger in the past decade, in no small part through Devi Thant Cin’s efforts. Public interest continues to rise, green networks are being set up (MGN has connected with more than 50 environmental groups), and Burma’s government — finally — established a Ministry of Environment in 2011.

Devi Thant Cin therefore, is confident that the movement can make a difference and protect Burma’s rich and diverse natural environment. “A conservationist must be patient. We believe everything is possible,” she said.  “What we need is time.”