Winner avatar
2004 Whitley Award
Ka Hsaw Wa Burma, Myanmar (Burma) Terrestrial
Indigenous Rights and Natural Resources, Burma

Combating the exploitation of Indigenous Rights and Natural Resources in Burma

‘In Burma, the military can do anything they want. There is no law.’

Courageous Ka Hsaw Wa, winner of the 2004 Whitley Award for Human Rights and the Environment sponsored by Sting and Trudie Styler, is a human rights activist who was tortured and forced to flee Burma when he was just 17 years old. Since then he has campaigned ceaselessly in America, Thailand and, secretly, inside Burma in an effort to stop human rights abuses and the devastation of Burma’s natural environment for development projects.

EarthRights International, which Ka Hsaw Wa co-founded in 1995, is involved in a landmark lawsuit against Unocal in protest at the devastation and human rights violations being caused by the Yadana Gas Pipeline project. Ka Hsaw Wa has been instrumental in gathering evidence to prove the damage being caused by logging and mining, and the forthcoming Slaween dam projects.

He said: ‘To get people to listen, you have to provide concrete proof that abuses are taking place, that the natural environment is being destroyed. Foreign companies won’t invest in Burma if they think abuses are taking place, for example, that indigenous people are being forcibly relocated, or being raped and murdered by the military if they try to resist. And if investment is coming from a country which itself is involved in human rights violations, such as China, then our target are those companies which finance and insure these projects.


‘There are no controls in Burma. Degradation of the environment is indiscriminate. Teak which is far too young to be sold is just cut down and burned. Areas that were once full of hardwood trees are now just bamboo. Chemicals used in mining extraction are polluting the water. The whole landscape is changing, causing erosion, drought and climatic changes.’

The Slaween dam projects involve the flooding of 35,000 acres and wholesale militarisation of the area. People are forced to move at gunpoint and their villages burned. Ka Hsaw Wa said: ‘Then the military can then turn round and say: ‘It’s ok, no people live here.’ We need to show what is really happening. In Burma, human rights abuse and the destruction of the environment are inseparable.’

Through EarthRights, Ka Hsaw Wa and his colleagues help train local people in fact-finding, as well as lobbying and communication skills so they can fight for their rights themselves. He said: ‘These people are brave because they are desperate. They are being cut off from their homes. Thousands are in refugee camps. More than a million are in Thailand. We need to gather evidence to show what is happening, to make companies accountable so they will no longer bank-roll development projects in Burma.’

The Whitley Award has brought more visibility to EarthRights International both internationally though the prestige of the Award, and also through work on the ground. Since winning the Award in 2004, it has been possible for video equipment to be purchased to document abuses to both people and the environment occurring in Burma. This evidence has helped bring about the successful resolution of the landmark lawsuit brought on behalf of indigenous Burmese villagers for earth rights abuses associated with the construction of the Yadana natural gas pipeline.




Following the receipt of his Whitley Award in April 2004, Ka Hsaw Wa was interviewed by The Ecologist. His interview appeared in the July/August 2004 issue.


15th December 2004

A ground-breaking settlement worth millions of dollars has been agreed between energy giant Unocal and Burmese villagers. A dozen villagers, brought together by EarthRights International, sued the company in the Californian courts claiming the Yadana gas pipeline in Burma had led to deaths, torture, rape, and destruction of both the natural environment and their way of life. It is thought the settlement, which has drawn international attention, could have major ramifications for other multinationals.


January 20th 2005

In January, ERI Co-Founder and Executive Director Ka Hsaw Wa participated in a series of special events to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King and his legacy of non-violence, leadership and human rights.


March 2005

The two cases brought by EarthRights International, one in the U.S.Federal courts and one in the Californian state courts, were settled when Unocal agreed to compensate the plaintiffs for abuses they suffered at the hands of Unocal’s business partner, the Burmese military regime. The groundbreaking settlement will provide funds to develop programs to improve living conditions, health care, and education for villagers along the pipeline route.

The Whitley Award has moreover supported the production of several publications drawing attention to the situation in Burma, public awareness raising, and the training of indigenous Burmese activists in Thailand. Through the support of WFN, Ka Hsaw Wa and EarthRights International are continuing to build a foundation for a civil society in future democratic Burma.


April 13th 2005

In the case against Unocal, after eight years of litigation, the plaintiffs (represented by a team of lawyers including EarthRights International) have finally received a measure of justice for the suffering they endured at the hands of Unocal’s business partner, the Burmese military for abuses along the Yadana gas pipeline.


May 9th 2005

Following the ground-breaking settlement between California-based Unocal Corporation and Burmese villagers, leading newspaper ‘The Nation’ has reported on the historic victory.