As the MyanmarGovernment and Army continue their campaign against free speech and fact-finding, local voices have never stood stronger. From Kyaukphyu Township in Rakhine State to Dawei Township in Tanintharyi Region, villagers caught in the country’s insatiable thirst for development stand united in opposition to investment projects that threaten their health, livelihoods, and natural environment. In recent weeks, proposed coal-fired power plants in Mon and Karen States and coal mines in northern Shan State have been the subjects of local activism.
On 21 June, 2017, 33 civil society organizations (CSOs) based in Karen State issued a statement opposing a proposed 1280-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Hpa-an Township, Karen State. The letter, signed by 114 other CSOs, denounced using coal, rather than renewable energy, to generate power. Since 28 June, local activists have been collecting signatures from over 20 villages in and around Hpa-an that will be submitted to the Karen State Chief Minister.
Last week, Mon State residents announced a plan to protest the Karen State plant, as well as a similar plant that has been proposed for Ye Township, Mon State, on 21 July, 2017. For the locals in Mon State, the upcoming protest is yet another piece of a hard-fought three-year battle with the Myanmar Government and Toyo-Thai Corporation Public Company Limited (TTCL), a Thailand-based joint venture backing both proposed plants. Since April 2014, residents of the Parlain area in Ye Township have worked to educate each other on the implications of the plant, collect signatures, and launch protests, culminating in 6,000 villagers coming out to protest in May 2015. In an even more impressive display of grassroots initiative and solidarity, the Parlain villagers also worked with regional CSOs to assemble a report highlighting the diversity and importance of natural resources in the area.
While the Myanmar Government touts the value of such projects to the local populations, asserting their necessity to regional development and to addressing the growing demand for electricity, the benefits to the local people have yet to materialize. Rather, all that can be seen by the affected communities is the destruction of their livelihoods and natural environments without provision of viable alternatives.
As described in a report by the Shan State Farmers’ Network released on 28 June, 2017, open-pit coal mining in Nam Ma tract of Hsipaw Township, northern Shan State has led to massive loss of grazing and farming lands, the drying up of wells, severe water and air pollution, and road accidents from coal trucks. While compensation was paid to villagers whose fields were affected, it was grossly disproportionate to the annual income that could be generated by the fields. Even after the mining stopped in certain areas, there was no effort by the Mandalay-based extraction company, Ngwe Yi Pale, to remove waste, fill in the pits or to restore any waterways or fields that existed prior to the mining. As one farmer from Pieng Hsai Village in Nam Ma said, “There will be nothing for our children. They will have no future, no livelihoods. If we can’t plant in our fields, we will have to move elsewhere.”
But if relocating was ever an option, it is less of an option now, as Myanmar Army offensives continue to ravage northern Shan State, as well as other ethnic regions across the country. The lack of a sustainable nationwide peace has in fact made it easier for Myanmar security forces to flex their muscles in ensuring that proposed energy projects proceed as intended, with or without consent from local communities. The villagers of Nam Ma know this only too well, as do those in Hlaingbwe Township, Karen State, where a Myanmar Army offensive near the Hatgyi Dam in September 2016 displaced over 5,000 residents, many of whom remain displaced today.
Meanwhile, it is the local peoples themselves who are proposing sustainable, forward-looking alternatives to address the need for energy and regional development. In Andin Village, one of the villages in Parlain that will be affected by the TTCL-backed power plant in Ye Township, villagers are hosting and taking part in workshops about using renewable energy. As noted by local activist Mi Ni Mar Oo, “Our region has good sunlight. More people will use solar energy [in the future]. The people in this region are very united. The villagers will use more solar energy in order to make [the government] realize that they don’t want coal-fired power plants.”
It’s time for all parties involved to listen to the people whose lives and livelihoods are at stake. As a signatory to the Paris Agreement, the Myanmar Government should take a leaf from the Andin villagers’ book. Rather than aiming to increase the country’s reliance on non-renewable energy sources like coal, it should work with local groups to devise alternatives that sustain livelihoods without inducing irreversible harm on the natural environment. International investors, too, must act more responsibly, especially in conflict-ridden, transitional countries like Myanmar. Rather than funding crony-owned coal-fired plants—as was recently decided by the International Finance Corporation despite fierce opposition from 174 CSOs—investors should seek out “climate-smart solutions” that ensure sustainable development. And lastly, domestic and international resource extraction companies alike must uphold the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and ensure regular, meaningful consultation with affected communities and civil society.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
Local EU Statement in Support of Freedom of the Media
By Delegation of the European Union to Myanmar
International Development Minister reaffirms UK commitment to Burma
By Department for International Development, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and The Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP
Myanmar: Investigate Torture, Death of Ethnic Ta’ang Civilians in Shan State
By Fortify Rights
Thailand: Provide Legal Status, Protections for Refugees
By Fortify Rights
Burma Urged to Free Journalists, Amend Telecommunications Law
By Reporters Without Borders
ဆဲဗင္းဇူလိုင္(၅၅)နွစ္ျပည့္တြင္ ထုတ္ျပန္ေသာ ဆို႐ွယ္ဒီမိုကရက္တစ္ညီညြတ္ေရးတပ္ဦး၏ ႏိုင္ငံေရးသေဘာထားေၾကညာခ်က္
By Social Democratic United Front
UNHCR Chief Filippo Grandi Renews Call for Solutions in Myanmar
By United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
UN Expert to Visit Myanmar to Assess Rights Impact of Worsening Security Situation
By United Nations Information Centre
JOINT STATEMENT: Thailand – Implement Commitments to Protect Refugee Rights
By 13 Human Rights Organizations
၅၅ ႏွစ္ေျမာက္ ဆဲဗင္းဂ်ဴလုိင္ အထိမ္းအမွတ္ ထုတ္ျပန္ေၾကညာခ်က္
By 9 Civil Society Organizations
Food Security Assessment in the Northern Part of Rakhine State, Final Report, July 2017
By World Food Programme
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”