Mae Moh’s Leading Activist Urges EarthRights School Myanmar Students to Take Action to Protect Myanmar Now

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“I am not a sweet person,” warned Maliwan Nakwirot, leader of Mae Moh Village, where many have fallen ill, were forced to resettle and have died, as a result of Thailand’s largest lignite mine and coal-fired power plant, says as we enter. “What I am going to say is not that soft…it will be a little strong.”

Students and several staff members of EarthRights School Myanmar (ERSMy) had just arrived to Mae Moh district in Lampang Province, to the relocation site for communities[1] who have been tortured for years by the impacts of the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT)’s ongoing expansion of the plant.

As her words were translated from Thai to English and Burmese, she wore a smile that conveyed fierce determination, a sense of rebellion, and the strength of spirit that seems to be a requirement for a human rights activist as consequential as her.  It was easy to imagine the infamous event in 2007, when Nakwirot-on a visit to Japan with Greenpeace– presented Asian Development Bank (ADB) President Haruhiko Kuroda with a gift during their annual ceremony. He proudly accepted, only to realize it was a stack of death certificates from the fatalities caused by the projects ADB helped fund. According to Nakirwot, this moment of embarrassment spurred ADB’s financial disengagement from the project.

Despite her smile, Nakwirot imparted a somber message.  She warned the students of the consequences of this kind of rapid and unregulated “development” project, which does not consider how its environmental impacts will affect the people of communities like hers.[2]  “What kind of development brings such disaster to a country?” Nakwirot asked.

She recounted a recent trip to Myanmar when, while flying over the lush landscape along the border, she was reminded of the natural beauty that surrounded the villages of Mae Moh before EGAT arrived 40 years ago with the promise of jobs and an improvement in their quality of life.

Nakwirot urged the students to use this as a cautionary tale for their own country: “In the future you will see the power plants and the mining from the bird’s eye view, but if you go to the ground you will see the tears of the people suffering from the projects.  That’s not what we’re supposed to call development.”

Nakwirot lost her own father to cancer caused by the pollution, and she, her husband and her son suffer from respiratory disease.  Her son lost his job at the power plant after supporting her advocacy campaigns.  Her life has been threatened, not only by the pollution her entire community is exposed to, but also by those who would like her to keep quiet.

She fearlessly charges forward, however, believing the suffering of the community is worse than any consequences she may face.

 

The people from Mae Moh are still waiting for justice in their 12-year case.  Seeing 142 villagers, an independant Bangkok-based doctor found conclusive evidence that each patient’s illness was a direct result of the pollution from the mine and plant.  This evidence has given other community members hope that they may receive compensation for the health problems that have plagued their lives for over a decade.

The judge is slated to announce his decisions by the end of May, which will determine the fate of not only the Mae Moh villagers, but also set precedence for others who are fighting for their rights to land and clean air and water.  The decision should also consider EGAT’s failure to relocate all communities living within five kilometers of the site, as well as an illegally-built golf club which was built with ADB funds intended for community compensation.

Mae Moh’s Museum Study Center version of the original lignite mine (top) paints a prettier picture than actually exists, which is 2 km deep and has taken the place of separate 8 villages.  The model, which explained the kind of trucks and machines that operated the mine, did not include any of the several cyanide- filled bodies of water that are dotted throughout the project sites.

 

Nikki, one of our teachers, reported that the students were inspired to apply Nakirwot’s lessons to their projects in Myanmar: “They had a great discussion on the importance of all of the strategies that were used in this case, including community mobilization, networking, seeking the attention of local and international organizations (e.g. Greenpeace) and media, the importance of documentation, and the selective targeting of various stakeholders (Thai government, ADB, TNHRC), and now the predominant focus on legal avenues for compensation and respect of the EIA.”

“Now, presently, it is a war between the politicians, the investors, and the people affected by those investments,” Nakwirot stated.  The students start a field study in June, when they will likely look back on these words.  The urgency is clear, and the students’ role is understood; they must begin their struggle now to empower the people, to prevent the imminent destruction of proposed or actual mines, plants, plantations, and dams before the damage is done and cannot be reversed.

 

 

 


[1] Approximately 30,000 people have been displaced or relocated to make way for EGAT’s lignite mine and coal-fired power plant.

[2] Greenpeace reported the power plant emits more the 7 million tons of carbon dioxide, produces 39 tons of mercury and 4 million tons of ash each year.  Thousands of people are suffering from respiratory ailments and estimated 300 deaths have been caused by the impacts of this pollution.

This post was written by Jessie Adler, former staff.

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