One sunny morning, I visited my uncle’s home to meet with a member of the community. His name is U Kitchan* and he is one of the villagers who opposes the 1,280 MW coal-fired power plant being proposed in Indin village, Ye Township in Mon State (Myanmar) by Toyo-Thai Corporation. He is 40 years old, strong, and a fierce leader in the community. As I sat and asked him questions, I learned that he owns a betel nut garden which provides his family’s main income. He told me, “My family is very happy, we can stay together with my relatives. If the company is successful in building the project, it would break apart our happiness. We depend on betel nut; the impacts of the project would destroy our land and our livelihood.” The way U Kitchan and his family live is simple and sustainable. He believes that his way of life and his family’s health would be threatened if the power plant was built. “We are opposing this project, we don’t want to breathe toxic air, and we don’t want to relocate. I want to tell the government and company to respect our community.”
As I continued my interviews, I met with another very interesting man in Duya village. His name is Hling* and he is 90 years old – my grandfather’s age. I asked if I could interview him. When I started talking to him I was surprised because he is very active and still healthy. He is one of the most interesting people I met in the village because of his wisdom and insight. At the beginning of the interview, I didn’t think he knew anything about the project. However, he not only told me about the history of the village, but he also asked me many questions as well. “Do you like development?” I said yes. He asked me, “How about coal power plants, do you like them?” He continued to ask me many more questions. He then said something which gave me goose bumps. He said, “My daughter! Always remember in your heart what I’m about to tell you. Now we are not poor, we have our own land and freedom. If you accept the project, your generation will have no freedom and will lose everything. If you believe in what I say, you must protect your community.” I felt an immediate responsibility to share this advice with other youth in my community.
Grandpa Hling was right. Around my village there is an abundance of natural resources. Andin village is one of the six villages who will be affected by the coal power plant. In most villages, Mon is the primary language spoken in everyday life and the village names also reflect the roots of Mon culture. A recent survey estimated that these six villages generate about 5.8 billion kyat (4.5 million USD) every year in income from betel nut, rice, and fishing. The community uses these figures in their campaign to demonstrate the severe economic loss the communities would suffer and the inadequacy of the one-time 1.5 million kyat offer made by the developers.
The developers have used various deceptive strategies in order to try to push the project forward. On April 25th, 2014, the developers organized the first public meeting and collected signatures from villagers without them having any knowledge of what they were signing. During the second meeting in December 2014, they only sent an invitation letter to monks and held the meeting in an outside village. They’ve also used threats, offered gifts, and have attempted to acquire land by buying off a powerful local villager. The project has not yet started but the people in Indin village have already faced social problems because of the developers tactics. The community’s response is united and strong, and is visible on the signs posted around the villages in Mon, Burmese, and English languages that declare: “No coal!”
When I graduated from university in Mawlamine, I didn’t really think about the environment. But in 2014, I started learning about it because my village was facing many problems. Like many projects, the coal power plant would greatly change the local culture and natural landscape. The rich natural resources in the area reflect a diverse and healthy ecosystem. The impacts of a coal power plant would devastate the villagers’ source of income and the pollution would deterioriate their health and environment. I have seen how the company was being unfair to our people and was not transparent with their plans. The first time the company representatives came to meet the local people they didn’t explain the project impacts and they didn’t give a chance for anyone to ask questions. The community didn’t know how the project would affect the environment and they didn’t know they have rights that the government and company are obligated to respect.
When I returned to my village to conduct my research for the EarthRights School, I saw how strong the villagers have become. They have started to learn about the impacts of coal. I saw smiles, kindness and people helping each other. The villagers are united and when they face problems they always solve them together. They also have a clear goal and they work together in every campaign activity. I can learn from the community leader who is always thinking positively and inspiring others. He tells us that the key to being successful is to use strategic, non-violent campaigning and to have tolerance. He encourages us to give each other feedback, and says that through this we will decrease our mistakes.
The villagers may not be well-educated or have formal training in campaigning, but they have rich local knowledge and passion which is what I see as the key to a successful campaign. Now the villagers are trying to strengthen the unity between all six villages and encourage the youth to attend trainings to become more engaged with the coal campaign. I want to share what I have learned at the EarthRights School, especially what I learned from the Thai communities we visited on our field trips. They strived to be able to sustain a long-term campaign and to work step-by-step. The communities ask NGOs to help them but they are not dependent on what NGOs say. In my opinion the community is the most important actor to fight against harmful development projects. I will build networks with anti-coal groups and communities in Myanmar to share information and stop coal power in our country. I also want to share Grandpa Hling’s message to others in my generation of our common responsibility to protect our environment and the resources we must cherish.
* The names have been changed.
Blog by EarthRights School Myanmar student Thiri Oo. Thiri is from Ye Township, Mon State. She has worked as a teacher at Mon National School and with YinThway Foundation, which supports education for Mon people. She is also a member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) – Mon State. Thiri joined the EarthRights School because there is a coal-fired power plant proposed for her village and she wants to support her community and especially youth to raise their awareness so they can campaign against the project.