10 Minutes To Read

Morality in Blue: Water Professionals Facing Moral Dilemmas in Myanmar’s Civil Disobedience Movement

10 Minutes To Read
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  • Win Thiri Lwin dives into the moral dilemmas water professionals face in the Spring Revolution.

    Credit: Saw Wunna, 2018

    Morality in Blue

    “If everybody is going to stop the country, then so many people will die”, said a senior-level Dutch water professional who had been working with the Myanmar government before the coup in 2021. She was commenting on the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM).

    The military coup has forced Myanmar’s civil servants to face many moral dilemmas. Educators asked themselves if, by continuing teaching, they would send the message to future generations to accept the suppression of democracy and freedom, and how instead they could actively work to promote democracy and freedom. Myanmar’s healthcare workers were caught in a similar dilemma: by joining the anti-coup protests they would support the struggle but risk retaliation, while returning to work to care for patients would have made them look like collaborators.

    The Spring Revolution raised important moral questions for water professionals too. Water is a basic need. In 2010, the United Nations declared “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right.” For water professionals, going on strike could mean undermining this right to water and sanitation, even though they were also serving Myanmar’s people by supporting the revolution. This intersection of water provision and moral considerations, what I term morality in blue, reflects the complexities facing water professionals amidst the CDM.

    Basic Human Needs and Moral Dilemmas

    As a water professional, who chose to continue to work with the Myanmar government after the coup, said: “Don’t look at the government, it will make the country worse, and we don’t know how long it will take. Water is a basic need. We must work.”[1] Or, as a water professional in the private sector put it, “If we want to be a good water professional, we cannot sit still and not do anything due to our work contributing to the government or supporting them. If so, the water sector in Myanmar will collapse”[2].

    A water professional told me that due to the CDM, there was an overload of work for Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) staff in the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC). They also predicted that Yangon City would suffer more frequent water shortages in the coming years, especially in 2024, due to the impact of El Nino.

    The water professionals I spoke to were right: despite official claims that there were no water shortages, the citizens of Yangon experienced several shortages during which access to water was frequently cut off. These cuts can be partially attributed to the participation of water professionals in the CDM. One water professional also stated that the water from the YCDC had not been at pre-coup capacity since 2021 and that they had to install a water pump to get water to the tap. The water pressure was very low and the water supply was no longer functioning for twenty-four hours.

    Furthermore, before the coup, the water situation in Myanmar had already been dire. Although accurate data is scarce, it is believed that unaccounted-for water or non-revenue water (NRW) comprises at least 40% of Yangon’s water supply, and this percentage is likely even greater in other areas. According to Water Aid, before the coup “over 80% of the population has access to clean water, and nearly 75% have access to decent toilets. However, these statistics don’t reflect the situation in many rural areas, which have some of the lowest access rates in Asia. The main challenge lies in the lack of sustainable public infrastructure and resources, which hinders efforts to provide these necessities to the people”.

    Nevertheless, some water professionals still joined the CDM, seeing it as their moral responsibility. One example was Ma Ni Ni (not her real name). Ma Ni Ni, who used to work on water-related projects at one of the Technological Universities before the coup, said: “I have a son. I want to leave an inheritance for my son, leaving the materialistic inheritance doesn’t last long, I want to leave ‘The good name of his mother’ which always says that his mother is the one who stands for justice. I want to be someone that my son to be proud of even after I die.”[3] For Ma Ni Ni, it is important to leave a legacy of standing up for justice. She feels strongly that the coup is wrong and unfair and decided to join the CDM despite the challenges that it presents to the water sector. Another water professional who joined the CDM simply commented: “The coup is unfair and unjust – this is why I am joining the Civil Disobedience Movement.”[4]

    Myanmar’s water professionals knew that joining CDM would lead to a possible collapse of the water services, depriving civilians of water, a basic human need. At the same time, they were aware that in public opinion joining CDM was regarded as the morally right thing to do. For water professionals, the dilemma is: should they take care of people’s needs, or take a stand against the junta?

    Buddhist Morality and the Civil Disobedience Movement

    In Myanmar’s revolution, one’s decision to participate in the CDM has become a moral question. This can be seen in the CDM policy that was briefed by the Joint Coordinate Committee of Civil Disobedience Movement, National Unity Government.  It states that individuals participating in the CDM consider their actions to be virtuous.[5] It also emphasizes principles of justice and the well-being of the people. It frames CDMers as morally upright actors in the Spring Revolution, which implies that those who are not part of the movement may be perceived as less morally righteous, and places stigma and judgment on individuals not involved in the CDM. Indeed, when I mentioned to Myanmar friends and colleagues that I wanted to interview non-CDMers, I was told, “of course, they won’t accept to be interviewed as they have a bad conscience.”[6]

    I argue that the language of “clear conscience” is used as moral pressure within the context of the Spring Revolution. CDM is associated with the Buddhist concepts of Anatta (non-self), which is the opposite of “Atta” (ego), which is viewed negatively as selfish and self-centered, according to CDM policy. This implies that CDMers view their actions as selfless and aligned with principles that go beyond personal gain, contributing to a sense of moral purity. Ma Ni Ni expressed empathy for non-CDMers who had no other options but to work for the government, but not for those who did: “I can understand people who couldn’t join CDM because they have their constraints, but I cannot understand people who are willing to work in government offices after the coup if they have different options for work.”[7]

    In 2019, Michał Lubina, in a book called The Moral Democracy, The Political Thought of Aung San Suu Kyi, argued that Aung San Suu Kyi’s political ideology was Western philosophy imposed on Buddhist concepts. It is clear from the CDM that the younger generation in Myanmar is also influenced by this mix of ideas, even though they are now exposed to Western ideas through social media after a long period of limited access to information due to military control. This becomes evident when we examine the motivations for becoming water professionals.

    Buddhist Morality and Water as a Profession

    “Water is a merit, I work in the water sector since I can contribute my work to the people’s needs, which is good for others and good for me.”[8] This quote expresses a commitment to water work as a means of earning merit, which is deeply rooted in Buddhist philosophy.  There’s the Burmese proverb “ကုသိုလ်လည်းရ ဝမ်းလည်းဝ”-“Make merit and fill the stomach at the same time”, the act of giving generously, particularly donating water, is believed to prevent donors from entering the dreaded realms of the four netherworlds.[9] Besides this, water professionals were also motivated by the Western ideas of rights. Interviewees would say, for example, that “Water is a basic need. Water is essential”,[10] or that “Water is civil rights and human rights. At the UN summit, it’s already been said.”[11]

    They used this rights-based thinking to justify their non-participation in the CDM by referencing sentiments articulated by the United Nations Summit and by adopting Western ideas that align with the global discourse on sustainable development. In addition, they feel committed to Sustainable Development Goal 6, Clean Water and Sanitation, which ensures the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation.

    Despite working within the regime, some professionals strive to align their political convictions with righteousness. They do so by supporting resistance groups through financial means and actions such as providing them with information. In times of political upheaval, moral considerations become blurred and it is important to remain open to questioning what is perceived as “good or bad” and “right or wrong.”

    “There’s a lot of friction between people. So, maybe you do CDM but are not tough enough and somebody else is judging you that you must do more protests and another one is judging you because I saw horrible things on Facebook, what people were saying to each other.”[12] It shows that instead of fostering solidarity and positive impacts, the moral discourses attached to the CDM have led to guilt and social fragmentation.

    In the same shoes

    On 10 February 2024, the junta announced the enforcement of the People’s Military Service Law. Every man between 18 and 35 and every woman between 18 and 27 now needs to serve in the military for at least two years and citizens who are doctors or engineers and graduated from one of the technological institutes serve until 45 (for men) and 35 (for women).

    The enforcement of the People’s Military Service Law has created a situation that for most civilians is similar to that faced by civil servants during CDM. If all citizens are placed in the same shoes as civil servants immediately following the coup, the question becomes: would all the citizens join the CDM?  This shared experience could provoke a sense of empathy and solidarity among the citizens, making them more likely to understand and support each other. Or, could it cause the repetition of the same pattern of social division that has happened between CDMers and non-CDMers, stigmatizing some as good and others as bad people? This could lead to tensions and further polarization within society. Those who comply with the military service mandate may be perceived differently from those who resist or refuse to participate, potentially leading to social fragmentation.

    However, when talking about the prospect of forced conscription with young people, what I heard was despair rather than concerns of solidarity. Young people are consumed by feelings of despair and are desperate to escape the situation. On Delta News Agency[13], one CDMer called on young people to empathize with civil servants who have been in the same situation since the coup. People are trying to leave the country as quickly as they can amidst a sense of hopelessness, leading to a mass exodus. This mass exodus is also a mass disobedience movement. What I worry about is that when the first storm that the conscription news has caused passes somewhat, the impulse to blame civilians who make “the wrong choice” will take over, just as it did with those civil servants who decided not to join the CDM – and where will this lead us?

    More About This Project

    Brief on Research Work and Methodology

    It is part of the contribution of my master’s thesis “Flowing in Crisis: Water Professionals’ Dilemmas and Capacity Building Challenges during Myanmar’s Political Turmoil”, conducted from July to December 2023, which continues into part of the “moral dilemma” dimension. The study involves interviewing twelve water professionals from Myanmar and the Netherlands, including both those who participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and those who did not. By focusing on individual stories and reactions in various contexts, the study addresses concerns about the sampling size of interviewees. Initially, interviewees were contacted through colleagues, and the snowballing method was used to expand the network. Interviews were recorded with consent. To ensure a structured and aligned approach to the interviews, a set of crafted semi-structured interview questions was developed. These questions were explored into the motivations, considerations, dilemmas, and experiences of water professionals. Conversations were transcribed and carefully reviewed for words and phrases related to morality and perception of water and water profession. Additional interviews with the same participants were conducted as needed for further insight.

    Acknowledging my role as both researcher and participant, I recognize the inherent relationship between myself and the interviewees. My identity as a Myanmar citizen and my active involvement in the events of 2021 may influence the perceptions and interactions of participants, particularly evident in the challenges encountered when engaging with non-CDMers for the study. Access to official data and government reports is limited and relies more heavily on non-governmental sources, such as reports from international organizations and independent media as the military harsh actions and limited access to objective information in Myanmar.

    Author's Dilemma

    The issue of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and those who do not participate in it is highly contentious. I firmly believe that penalizing professionals in education, healthcare, and water management for not joining the CDM does more harm than good. While the CDM is labeled as a movement, it has unfortunately become associated with one’s identity based on participation or lack thereof, especially in the Myanmar context, exacerbating societal divisions. Despite deliberations within the military, I maintain the belief that punitive measures against non-participants are not necessary.

    On the other hand, reflecting on the revolution in Myanmar, I admit to witnessing the regime’s cruelty during my time there. However, living far away has led to (more or less) emotional detachment and a need to approach the situation with less emotional motives. It was brought to my attention when I think about the first time I discussed this topic with a Dutch water professional, saying to myself, “They could have said that as they are not Myanmar citizens nor Myanmar.” As time went by, I started to accept that what they said should be also considered.

    I find myself internally conflicted and ironically to suggest that one should refrain from hating the other side by living far away, not directly and promptly impacted by the junta’s action.  What I know for sure is that we are definitely against this military regime and aim for the welfare of Myanmar, so we should open our minds again to interact with them.     

    I salute all the brave people in Myanmar who are resisting the junta. The contribution is dedicated to my best friend, who lost his life in the revolution, and other people for their brave acts in pursuit of their beliefs and freedom.  Together, let us continue the fight for justice, freedom, and democracy, not only in Myanmar but also in every corner of the world where these ideals are threatened.

    Win Thiri Lwin, based in the Netherlands, is a recent master’s graduate from the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, on Water and Sustainable Development, with a special interest in Myanmar’s political landscape through the lens of cultures, beliefs, ethnicities, and identities.

    [1] Code 08 Interviewee, 4th August 2023
    [2] Code 07 Interviewee, 2nd August 2023
    [3] Ma Ni Ni, 26th August 2023
    [4] Code 10 Interviewee, 10th August 2023
    [5] According to the statement, “မိမိတို့၏ ဘဝ နှင့် အတ္တ ကိုစွန့်လွှတ်အနစ်နာခံ၍ လူအများအတွက်ရည်ရွယ်ပြီး အခက်အခဲအမျိုးမျိုးကို ကြံ့ကြံ့ခံရင်ဆိုင်ကာ အကြမ်းဖက်စစ်အုပ်စုကို စဉ်ဆက်မပြတ် တော်လှန်နေကြသော CDM များ….”
    [6] Code 06 Interviewee, 31st January 2024
    [7] Ma Ni Ni, 26th August 2023
    [8] Code 11 Interviewee, 11th August 2023
    [9] U Dhamma Thar Mi, The Lecturer
    [10] Code 08 Interviewee, 4th August 2023
    [11] Code 07 Interviewee, 2nd August 2023
    [12] Code 04 Interviewee, 1st August 2023
    [13] Referring to the news specifically at 7:25 of the video clip.

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