Environment groups and local villagers in Burma and Thailand launched a protest against the Mong Koke coal-mining project in eastern Shan State last week.
The project is a joint operation by the Dawei deep sea port project developer, the Italian-Thai Company, ITD, and Thailand’s Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand’ (EGAT).
“This Mong Koke coal mining project will cause a greenhouse effect in the region, and it will affect the local environment. It will create pollution and destroy the ecological system of the Chiang Rai River. We don’t want this Mong Koke coal mining project,” said Suphakit Nuntavorakarn, an environmental activist.
EGAT expects the plant to generate 370 MW of power and 15,000 MW electricity power over the next 20 years.
The project is located in Burma 40 kms north of Thailand’s Chiang Rai border. EGAT and the Burmese government signed an agreement to produce 1.5 million tons of coal annually for 10 years and to build a 405 MW thermal power station of which 369 MW will be sold to Thailand.
Thai power demand is 23,900 MW (150,000 million KWh) and it is expected to increase to 54,000 MW in the next 20 years. About 45 per cent is produced by coal-fired power stations. The coal to be used in the power units will be produced by the Mae Mao coalmine and imported coal.
The agreement with the Burmese government must be renewed every five years; the total project tenure is 25 years. Burma will begin selling energy to Thailand in early 2016, according to officials.
About 20 villages south of Mogok were forcibly relocated in March. The military regime ordered the villagers to sell their farmland at a set price of 20,000 kyat (US$ 25) per acre to the company. Local residents said the authorities violated the human rights of local villagers.
The protesters said the project would include about 200 trucks that will transport coal daily through the area causing noise and coal dust pollution.
The report compiled by the Mong Koke activist group said Burmese military units persecuted and tortured local villagers in 2007 when it accused them of giving support to the Shan State Army – South (SSA-S).
SSA-S and government troops frequently clash in the Mong Koke area and Burmese troops have deployed extra security to protect the project. The report said that about 1,000 Shan, Akha and Lahu villagers fled to Thailand in fear of persecution.
Thai social groups have sent letters and expressed their opposition to the project to the Thai Human Right Commission, the Thai Lawyers Council and the Chiang Rai authorities since 2009.
Residents in northern Thailand also worry that pollution will affect the Koke River. The Koke River is a main waterway for people in northern Thailand and is a popular tourist attraction. The power station is projected to use water from the Koke River and wastewater from the power station will be put into the river again. The report said the project would emit many harmful chemicals and destroy wildlife and plants in the region. Coal mining and coal burning emits many poisonous chemicals such as arsenic, mercury, chromium and cadmium, the report said.
Meanwhile, a coal-mining project in Pinlaung Township in Burma has created dangerous water and air pollution, according to local residents. About 20,000 people from Tikyit and Se Gaung villages are suffering from skin diseases caused by the pollution, according to “Poisoned Cloud,” a report prepared by Thai-based Pa-O Youth Organization released in January.
Where it all Began:
Mongkok is in Monghsat township, opposite Mae Ai and Mae Fa Luang districts of Chiangrai province. Monghsat used to be a frontier outpost for Chiangmai to head off attempts by the Burmese forces to invade it. However, somehow Thailand (Siam at that time) was unable to negotiate with the Shans’ new master the British for possession and, as a result, Monghsat became part of Shan State of Burma. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have been holding this public forum.
Burma and Shan State (Shan States at that time) were separately governed by the British:
- Burma was a colony and did not enjoy self rule
- Shan States was a protectorate and had self rule, in other words, autonomy
After World War II, and British decided they had had enough and offered independence. Due to their desire for Burma, Shan States and other non-Burman territories to unite, the Panglong Agreement was negotiated and signed by all. Frontier Areas, as they were known at that time, were to enjoy the rights of autonomy (in internal affairs), democracy and human rights.
All these promises were broken when the Kuomintang forces, defeated by Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army, retreated to Shan State.
The Burmese government, ostensibly to defend national sovereignty, took advantage of the situation to occupy Shan State. Peaceful and lawful attempts by the people to restore state rights, democracy and human rights were suppressed by force of arms inevitably leading to armed resistance.
The armed resistance by the people of Shan State, instead of serving as a reminder to the Burma Army to mend its ways, provided it with an excuse to increase its presence there. As a result, the Shan State that used to have only 2 infantry battalions during the British days now have more than 160 infantry battalions, not counting the supporting units.
The standing policy of the Burma Army, unlike the Royal Thai Army, is two-fold: First, each unit must feed itself and second, each must have its own common fund. It has led to
- Confiscation of arable lands from the people and renting them back to the former owners
- Raising funds by all means available
Use of forced labor
When there is a military campaign against resistance movements or a development project, forced relocations of the people follows. All these things have been witnessed in Mongkok and the surrounding areas.
And this is not the first time the Burma Army has done it. There are several precedents:
Forced relocations of more than 300,000 people from 1,500 villages in 11 townships between 1996-98 when the Tasang megadam project with a Thai company began
Forced relocations of more than 4,000 people in Yawngkha, just south of Mongkok, when the crop substitution project initiated by the Doi Tung Foundation began in 2002
Actually, forced relocation is merely a civil word for expulsion of the people from their ancestral lands.
So, where do most of these people go, when they are thrown out from their homes? Thailand of course, either as refugees or migrant laborers.
The questions for the Thai company concerned thus are:
- Do you think Burma is better off as a democracy and a land that respects human rights?
- Or do you think if Burma becomes a democracy and a land that respects human rights like Thailand does, you can’t do any mega projects there?
- Do you consider yourself at least partly responsible for the negative impacts that result from your project and you are ready to assume full responsibility for them, such as providing official IDs and jobs to the people coming from the project area?
If so, I would encourage you to do whatever you want there. Our people would rather live under a humanitarian government than a despotic one any way.
As for the Thai government, one thing to consider is whether it wants more migrant labor from Burma? If it does think cheap labour from Burma is good for Thailand, you don’t have to care whether or not Burma is a democracy or champion for human rights.
But if it hopefully decides enough is enough, then it had better started thinking of ways to promote democracy, human rights and ethnic rights in Burma.