In dialogue

“It is impossible to remain neutral, even for ethical reasons”

Nickey Diamond from Myanmar is doing his PhD in Konstanz and is the first scholarship holder of the Hilde Domin Programme, which since 2021 has been supporting students and doctoral candidates who are at risk. Together with his professor Judith Beyer, he talks about political engagement and science, the value of the programme and the situation in Myanmar.

Issue 2 | 2023

Mr Diamond, you were forced to flee from Myanmar in 2021 because you are a human rights activist. What prompted your political activism?

Nickey Diamond: Ever since Myanmar became independent, ethnic and religious minorities have suffered discrimination in this predominantly Buddhist country. I experienced the consequences even as a teenager: although my Muslim family has lived in Myanmar for generations, we were not recognised as citizens. We were not permitted to vote, couldn’t open a bank account and were unable to leave our home region of Mandalay. After leaving school, I spent years fighting to obtain a passport. I reported on this battle on social media – that was the start of my political activism. In 2007 I established “Youth for Social Change”, an organisation that supports disadvantaged young people in Myanmar. Between 2016 and 2021, on behalf of the human rights organisation “Fortify Rights”, I documented numerous acts of violence committed against Muslims by the military and the police.

What role does the dissemination of hate speech play with respect to the genocide perpetrated against the Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State and other atrocities in Myanmar?

Nickey Diamond: In my research, building on modern findings in political and legal anthropology, I explore precisely this question: How and in which political context does hate speech motivate people to commit violence? For this purpose, I analyse a large number of original Burmese sources that I have collected in Myanmar over the years. In add­ition to anti-Muslim pamphlets and videos, these include transcripts of “dhamma talks” – public lectures given by monks about Buddhist teaching. In Myanmar, hatred of Muslims and other minorities is legitimised via such lectures. I firmly believe that hate speech is an early warning sign. In a democracy, it is the government’s job to actively counter such hatred. Unfortunately, this did not happen during the reform era, which lasted from 2011 until the head of government Aung San Suu Kyi was ousted in February 2021. On the contrary: the abolition of censorship actually increased hatred and ­anti-Muslim sentiment. Today Myanmar has descended into chaos and violence.

“I firmly believe that hate speech is an early warning sign. In a democracy, it is the government’s job to actively counter such hatred.”

Nickey Diamond

Professor Beyer, you have been conducting research in and on Myanmar for many years, and support several doctoral candidates who are ­studying activism. How do science and political engagement fit together?

Judith Beyer: There was an attempted military coup in Myanmar on 1 February 2021. Ever since, none of us have been able to visit the country to pursue our anthropological fieldwork. Many of our informants, in whose homes we stayed in Myanmar, are actively resisting the military. This has also changed our scientific position, and now we do whatever we can to support them from abroad. Science and political engagement are often perceived as opposites – but when the situation demands it, it is impossible to remain neutral, even for ethical reasons. Naturally, this requires us to keep questioning our own stance. We communicate our research findings not only within the academic community, but also to the general public. In so doing, we actively help to shape the debate about movements that are committed to peace and democracy.

Nickey Diamond: Judith Beyer’s working group at the University of Konstanz is just the right place for me, as I can do my PhD here while at the same time continuing to pursue my work as an activist. I am very happy that the Hilde Domin Programme makes it possible for me to research in Germany and to live here in safety with my wife and two children. My situation became increasingly dangerous following the attempted coup in February 2021. On several occasions I had to go underground for several days at a time. In the end, I received a very clear warning that I was to be arrested and killed. We left our home in Yangon that same day. We spent many weeks hiding in the jungle with a small child and a baby. That was an incredibly difficult time for us.

“Naturally, this requires us to keep questioning our own stance.

Professor Judith Beyer

How did you learn about the Hilde Domin Programme in that situation?

Nickey Diamond: Judith and I have known each other since 2018, so I wrote to her and described my situation. Several times I had to climb up a mountain to get a signal on my phone so that I could upload my application. Luckily I was quickly accepted onto the programme, and we succeeded in leaving Myanmar.

Professor Beyer, you also run the programme of training that accompanies the Hilde Domin Programme, which now provides funding for around 50 students and doctoral candidates all over Germany.

Judith Beyer: Yes, in the autumn of 2023 we will be meeting the first programme cohort for the second time at a workshop in Konstanz. The accompanying training programme is intended to give the scholarship holders the chance to acquire further academic and personal qualifications that will help them contribute to the political, economic and social development of their countries of origin upon completion of their studies or research project. Scientists and researchers from Myanmar who have fled to Europe to escape the terror at home could play an important future role in establishing democracy in the country.

Mr Diamond, together with others from Myanmar, you filed criminal charges in Germany against members of the military junta in January 2023. What do you hope this will achieve?

Nickey Diamond: Universal jurisdiction makes it possible to prosecute serious international crimes regardless of where they were committed. If the federal public prosecutor general initiates investigations, this would make it very difficult for the generals from Myanmar to travel abroad or engage in international business dealings. Because the army is now also terrorising the Burmese major­ity population, resistance all over the country has grown hugely. Sooner or later the military junta will be deposed. A great deal of education and critical examination of the crimes will then be necessary to make peaceful coexistence in Myanmar possible. I hope that I will be able to contribute to this process with my research. —

Nickey Diamond (Ye Myint Win) is the first scholarship holder of the DAAD’s Hilde Domin Programme. Thanks to the funding, he is currently doing his PhD at the Univer­sity of Konstanz. The human rights activist worked for the non-governmental organisation “Fortify Rights” in Myanmar, which was why he had to flee the country in 2021. Diamond has a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Distance Education in Mandalay, Myanmar, as well as a master’s degree in human rights from Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand.

Professor Judith Beyer has taught anthropology with a special focus on political anthropology at the University of Konstanz since 2014. She specialises in political and legal anthropology and has conducted long-term fieldwork in Central and Southeast Asia. At present her research in Europe is on expert activism and statelessness. In 2003, she spent a semester studying at the American Univer­sity of Central Asia in the Kyrgyzstan capital Bishkek on a DAAD scholarship.

The DAAD’s Hilde Domin Programme, which is funded by Germany’s Federal Foreign Office, enables students and doctoral candidates who suffer political persecution or discrimination to continue their studies and advance their research in Germany. It is named after the German poet Hilde Domin, who fled to escape the Nazis but later returned to Germany.

Nyein Chan May also fled from Myanmar as a ­political activist and was awarded a Hilde Domin Programme scholarship. She is studying political science and sociology at the University of Würzburg, focusing particularly on questions of peace and conflict research and feminist foreign policy, which would not be possible in ­Myanmar. Get to know Nyein Chan May in our ­video portrait and learn more about the association she has established: “German Solidarity with Myanmar Democracy”.