Combining the power of law and the power of people
Meet SIT alumnus Ka Hsaw Wa, co-founder and executive director of EarthRights International
SIT alum Ka Hsaw Wa is the co-founder and executive director of EarthRights International (ERI), “a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization that combines the power of law and the power of people in defense of human rights and the environment”. In his story below, Ka Hsaw Wa shares with us the impetus for ERI’s founding, the global reach of ERI’s work, and the impact and value of his SIT education.
“Our planet has always been a very dangerous place for activists standing in between the world’s most valuable resources and multinational corporations who value profits over people. I know this personally.
Growing up in Myanmar, I witnessed the destabilizing effects of military rule and the impact corporate investments had in communities across the country. At 18, as part of the 1988 student uprising to end my country’s military rule, I was arrested and tortured. Once I was released, I traveled clandestinely to interview witnesses of human rights abuses and exposed these abuses to the international community.
The Yadana gas pipeline in Myanmar was a catalyst for egregious human rights violations. Unocal, a subsidiary of the infamous American multinational energy corporation, Chevron, operated the pipeline. In addition to forced relocation and labor, the Burmese military, who were in a contractual agreement with Unocal to provide security for the pipeline, raped, tortured and killed ethnic minorities who owned the land.
Joining forces with two American lawyers, I co-founded EarthRights International (ERI) in 1995, an organization that combines the power of law and the power of people in defense of human rights and the environment. ERI has evolved to a global effort to reach and protect the most vulnerable communities from corporate greed and political interests.
In 1997, after speaking to victims and witnesses in the communities impacted by the gas pipeline, we filed a lawsuit against Unocal. In 2003, Unocal was forced to settle: the first time a human rights lawsuit against a multinational corporation resulted in compensation for survivors.
The education I received at SIT was greatly beneficial to the organization’s work. By customizing my curriculum, I was able to harness the knowledge I found most relevant for my personal goals as well as ERI’s goals. The degree’s flexibility made it easy to apply what I learned at SIT to our organization and improve the ways in which we work.
ERI now employs more than 60 dedicated staff and has offices in the U.S., Thailand, Myanmar, and Peru. ERI also welcomes students annually to our schools that provide intensive training to emerging leaders in the Mekong Region. ERI also has a strong alumni network, and alumni continue to make major strides in their communities. For example, Meach Mean, a 2008 graduate, now directs the 3S Rivers Protection Network in Ratanakiri Province (Cambodia), advocating for public participation in hydropower planning by conducting community-based research on the impacts of dam projects on the Sesan, Srepok, and Sekong rivers. Mueda Nawanat, who graduated in 2012, started the Mekong Youth Assembly, a network of youth groups in the Mekong Region that strengthens communities’ capacities to defend their earth rights.
The world is only becoming more dangerous for earth rights defenders facing off against unjust development projects and extractive companies. It is our hope that our schools provide our alumni not only with the energy and skills to fight corporate greed, but also the safety mechanisms to survive.
SIT provided me with the professional platform to collaborate both with ERI staff and communities to mobilize efforts for justice.
Although there is still work to be done to ensure that vulnerable communities around the world are protected from corporate interests and environmental devastation, SIT provided me with the professional platform to collaborate both with ERI staff and communities to mobilize efforts for justice.