The local organization Paung Ku co-organised a green energy conference to discuss strategies for generating clean energy that benefits all. At the end of the conference, 400 local civil society organizations signed a statement calling on the government of Myanmar to review its policy so it is participative, respectful of the environment and focuses on renewable energies.
Here is an interview with Dr. Kyaw Thu, one of the leading figures in this struggle and Director of Paung Ku. The interview was done by Ralf Symann of MISEREOR’s Liaison Office in Myanmar.
Why is there such a strong mobilisation for clean energy from civil society organizations in Myanmar?
Local communities have had bad experiences with large-scale hydropower dams such as the Upper Paung Laung and the Thoutyaygat dams, and now the Myitsone Dam, the construction of which has been suspended. Many people lost their land and reported being threatened to relocate to remote places where there is no water, no infrastructure, generally unfertile soils and without proper compensation. They lost their livelihoods, and their cultural heritage and social safety networks were diminished. In addition, lack of transparency in the process and the contract and its direct impact on peace with ethnic population are key public concerns on large-scale dam and people and civil society are thus highly mobilized.
In the case of coal power plants, a Chinese-built 120-MW power plant in Tigyit, Shan State, in the eastern part of Myanmar, has become a serious concern for local community and civil society organizations across the country. The water and soil pollution from mining in this area are at serious levels and NO responsible action has been taken by either the government or the company. The health effects that are being reported include an unusual increase in the rate of immature births, births with anomalies, and respiratory diseases, but the authorities and the company ignored the situation. Operations at the coal power plant were temporarily suspended to upgrade the plant, but have now restarted. Environmental and Social Impact Assessments are mandatory in Myanmar since 2016, but officials have said that these do not apply to the Tigyit power plant because it was built in 2005.
How many coal power stations are planned to be built in Myanmar and where are they located?
Currently, at least 11 coal power plants are planned, but the government has not shared information about the approval process. Locations are in Ayeyarwaddy Divison, Rakhine State, Mon State, Thanintharyi Division and Yangon Division. Coal Power plants are often but not always connected to the development of industrial and trade zones.
How are communities affected by coal power projects?
The people of the community of Tigyit in Shan State suffered from coal mining. In terms of the planned coal power plants, people live and farm in the locations where they are to be built, so if the projects go forward, they will lose their land and livelihoods. In some cases, such as that of An Din village in Mon State, coal power plants are planned in locations of natural beauty where there is a high potential for tourism. The power plants threaten the long term economic development of the whole community. Fortunately, the An Din coal power plant has been suspended due to strong opposition by the local population.
In Myanmar, there is almost no consultation with communities for projects. Corruption at the various administration levels results in inadequate or no compensation at all when projects are implemented. The majority of land confiscations that are reported are not done according to existing laws, and these unregulated practices create social and environmental injustice. The inconsistent compensation arrangements divide traditionally cohesive communities into pro-investment and anti-investment camps. This destroys the social cohesion of the communities.
Why does the Ministry of Energy promote coal power stations?
The previous government sought international assistance to prepare to meet the increasingly high demand for electrical power. The World Bank, the Asia Development Bank and the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) conducted separate assessments, which are all inconsistent with each other. JICA recommended that the Ministry of Energy of Myanmar aim for more than 30% coal power by 2030, but this is directly related to benefits for Japan. This contradicts the World Bank’s recommendation to focus on renewable energies. The Ministry of Energy also promotes hydropower and coal because it was considered cheaper than solar power, but this is no longer the case. There is also the myth of time, i.e. that electric power from coal can be generated in a short time, which is not always true. Impacts on water use, transportation and storage of coal were never discussed by coal power supporters of the previous government.
Where does the coal for the power plants come from?
Myanmar has plenty of coal resources and several active coal-mining areas, but most of the coal is very dirty and not used in modern coal power stations. In the Tigyit coal power plant, for instance, they use coal from the Tigyit mining area and mix it with high-grade coal imported from China. For the planned coal power stations, high-grade coal will need to be imported from foreign countries such as Indonesia or Australia.
How do you generally perceive the status of climate politics in Myanmar?
Myanmar is identified as one of the 10 most vulnerable countries to climate change and the 2nd most threatened country in the world according to Germanwatch. Myanmar had a delegation of 100 representatives from government, civil society and development partners at the COP21 Climate Conference in Paris. They presented what the global climate agreement means for Myanmar and what needs to be done to implement it locally. At the time, the Government of Myanmar committed to reducing carbon emissions.
The green energy forum we organised was, in part, a follow-up to both COP21 and COP22, where CSOs could see how the government has failed to fulfil its political commitments to protect and conserve the biodiversity of Myanmar and reduce emissions. The current government had promised a shift to renewable energy in its election platform but instead it has maintained the policy of the previous government to develop coal and hydropower. We wanted to remind them of their promise to shift towards sustainable renewable energy.
By bringing together people and communities who are fighting large-scale hydropower and coal power plants, we hope to strengthen the green movement, promote clean energy and establish social and environmental justice in Myanmar. As CSOs have said in statements, the people of Myanmar have the right to choose the best development model for their country so that it can be a green home, and developed countries have a responsibility to provide technical and financial support for building resilience to climate change effects.