"The military had so many guns and so much power; all I had was a pen and notepad. It was in this context that understanding the law as a weapon was a revelation. Particularly when it became clear to me that powerful people and abusive corporations were really scared of it!"
Ka Hsaw Wa is Co-founder and Executive Director of EarthRights International, an international human rights and environmental justice organization that combines the power of law and the power of people to defend human rights and the environment. He is a member of the Karen ethnic nationality from Myanmar (Burma). His activism began in 1988, afte rhe was arrested and tortured for his role in leading the 1988 student uprising calling for human rights, democracy and an end to military rule. In the ensuing crackdown by the Burmese regime, he fled the country, and for 25years has traveled clandestinely to remote areas of Burma to interview witnesses and victims of human rights abuses perpetrated by the junta and exposed these abuses to the international community. As the ExecutiveDirector of EarthRights, Ka Hsaw Wa has been instrumental in the creation of new legal strategies for corporate and government accountability as well as innovative training such as the EarthRights School, aimed at building the capacity of indigenous peoples to protect their rights, restore control over natural resources and conserve the environment. Ka Hsaw Wa has been honored for his work with the Goldman EnvironmentalPrize (aka the Nobel Prize for the Environment); the Reebok Human Rights award;The Sting and Trudie Styler Award for Human Rights and the Environment, the Conde Nast Environmental Award and the Ramon Magsaysay Award for EmergentLeadership. He has been featured in numerous books, articles, films including Speak Truth to Power, by KerryKennedy, and the award-winning documentary, Total Denial. He holds an M.A. from the School forInternational Training (SIT) in Intercultural Leadership and Management.
Ka Hsaw Wa was born under a different name, which he keeps secret in order to protect his family in Burma. He has not seen his parents in over 15 years. He adopted the name "Ka Hsaw Wa", which means "the White Elephant", while in exile in the United States. White Elephants are traditionally thought of by the Karen people as symbolizing righteousness and strength as well as a harbinger of great positive change.
Ka Hsaw Wa grew up in Burma as the son of a doctor and enjoyed relative economic privilege in his youth. However, when he entered college he soon became active in political causes, and quickly developed into a strong student leader. The Burmese government attacked the students brutally in 1988, killing many. Ka Hsaw Wa was captured and tortured. He then left Burma, but re-entered the country in order to participate in a lengthy photographic campaign documenting environmental and indigenous destruction, as well as severe human rights abuses, including starvation, systematic rape, and the destruction of entire villages. Most of the problems he documented were connected to the construction and operation of a petroleum pipeline in the area of Yadana for the oil companies Unocal (U.S.-based) and Total S.A. (based in France).
Ka Hsaw Wa, Katie Redford and EarthRights launched a federal lawsuit against Unocal, employing a unique legal strategy utilizing the U.S. Alien Tort Statute of 1789, which says that "federal courts have jurisdiction for torts that occur in violation of the Law of Nations, [which] includes abuses of fundamental human rights [and] genocide",in order to force the company to assume responsibility for human rights abuses caused by its actions. In the case Unocal eventually agreed to pay compensation to the 15 anonymous villagers who suffered forced labor, rape, and the effects of killings. For about 30 years Ka Hsaw Wa has been recording people's stories to publish violation of human rights in his homeland.
Ka Hsaw Wa continues his front-line activism, and was featured in the 2006 film, Total Denial. A description based on his role in the film is as follows:
"Ka Hsaw Wa dedicated his life to human rights activism, speaking fluent English and Burmese, dodging back and forth as he plays cat-and-mouse with the border guards, marrying another rights worker and even raising a family. All the while he is fighting to live and protect his homeland. At one point he describes how he was himself tortured. When he goes into difficult areas of the jungle, he takes a gun with a single bullet - to commit suicide if captured (to avoid torture)."
Ka Hsaw Wa and EarthRights are also involved in the current struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma, wherein a number of protesters, including monks, have been killed, and hundreds of protesters arrested. They are working to bring an end to the current violence against the people. In response to the 2007 protests, Ka Hsaw Wa has said:
"As someone who experienced this regime's brutality in 1988, I am glad that this time around, the world is watching. But that is not enough. The international community, including multinational corporations, must act now to prevent further bloodshed in Burma. The people have suffered profoundly for too long — they have already sacrificed so much, and they will not stop."
Growing up in Burma during the military dictatorship of the 1980s, Ka Hsaw Wa writes, “we used to say that when you hear the word ‘law’, you run in the other direction.” Ka Hsaw Wa was forced into exile after being arrested and tortured during the Burmese student uprising of 1988. In this powerful personal essay, he describes how he turned away from violence after witnessing atrocities, and came to understand the law, rather than military warfare, as a way to bring about change to his home country. This was through the precedent-setting UNOCAL pipeline case, which established that an American corporation could be held liable for gross human rights violations committed on foreign soil. The decade-long case helped him see the possibilities of legal advocacy, but only when it went hand in hand with movement-building: “Not only were the people more powerful with legal tools in their hands, but the law was more powerful too, when the people on the ground – those with the most to gain and lose – were inhabiting it with their own experiences.” Still, he understood the law’s limitations, in changing peoples’ lives: “Law is not the leader,” he concludes. “It is a tool for strengthening the community.”