While most European countries are shuttering coal plants, Southeast Asia is moving in a different direction.
Last year, Myanmar’s leaders startled climate campaigners by throwing their support behind coal power. The government pledged to provide electricity for all by 2030, with roughly a third coming from coal power, up from a meager two percent. Coal was pitched as the ultimate solution to energy poverty in Myanmar, where only a third of the population is connected to the national grid.
Communities across Myanmar have mobilized in opposition to over a dozen proposed coal plants, many buoyed by investment from neighboring Thailand. Close analysis of the Myanmar government’s power development plans shows that much of the electricity is intended for export to Thailand. International investors, including the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, have been eager to promote “clean coal” technology that Japan conveniently exports.
Case studies from the region show the real impacts of coal on people and the environment. A video produced by ERI offers lessons for campaigners in Myanmar from its eastern neighbor. It shares stories from three communities in Thailand who successfully fought against coal projects in their areas.
One such area was Mae Moh in northern Thailand, where a 2,400-MW plant was developed by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), Thailand’s state-owned power utility and one of the main investors in a proposed coal plant in the Dawei Special Economic Zone.
“They said that the project would bring development, jobs and a good economy,” said Maliwan Nakviroj, a community leader in Mae Moh. “Villagers would have more money.”
But soon after the project was completed, more than 30,000 were forced to relocate due to dust, noise, pollution and environmental degradation of their land and crops. No Environmental Impact Assessment was ever conducted. In the early 1990s, the community began to organize in protest, eventually staging a ten-year legal battle against EGAT.
“We are a minority, but we say if we cannot stop the power plant, we can at least stand up for our rights,” added Nakviroj.
In early 2015, the Chiang Mai Administrative Court ruled in their favor, ruling that the company had failed to control its emissions of sulphur dioxide and awarding 25-million baht as compensation to the surviving villagers. The landmark decision demonstrated the power of the law in helping communities oppose coal projects in Thailand.
In Prachuap Khiri Khan along the pristine Gulf of Thailand, Baan Krut villagers successfully resisted the development of a 1,400 MW EGAT-supported coal plant. Drawing lesson from the Mae Moh campaign, the community staged an 18-year battle against powerful vested interests, with determination and fearlessness among their strongest weapons.
“The police said if we started a campaign we would be arrested,” said Jintana Kaewkao, President of Baan Krut Environment and Natural Resources Conservation Group. “But we still continued.”
The government then presented a smaller 735 MW coal plant in Bo Nok as the solution to blackouts in Southern Thailand.
“They said to us if we don’t build the power plant here, we would be the cause of the whole country losing electricity,” said Sureerat Taechoosakul, a community leader.
But the community disagreed. Following in the footsteps of Baan Krut, the villagers launched a passionate campaign against the project. They sought out experts in renewable energy who disagreed with the government’s assessment and stoked an academic debate on the over-projection of Thailand’s energy needs.
Both cases in Prachuap Khiri Khan resulted in the government backing down, demonstrating the value of local participation in decisions around energy and the power of united and well-informed communities.
For communities in Myanmar, these stories of success can offer hope.