Why Political Reform in Burma Is Good for the Environment, Too

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Burma has lived for decades under one of the world's most repressive governments, but since last year—when President Thein Sein's semi-civilian government took power—there have been growing hints at change that, while questionable at times, have been rewarded with a boost in international relations.

Politics aside, Burma is also particularly vulnerable to—and already suffering from—the effects of climate change. Until recently, however, any notion of a protest or effort to build momentum to combat climate change was impossible.

Last month, Thein Sein's government halted construction of a 4,000 megawatt coal-fired power plant in Dawei—a southern city and planned site of the country's "first and biggest special economic zone," according to Reuters. That project is much larger than just the coal plant, as Reuters explains:

Super-highways, steel mills, power plants, shipyards, refineries, pulp and paper mills and a petrochemical complex are part of it, as are two golf courses and a holiday resort - all strategically nestled in Southeast Asia between rising powers India and China.

Al Jazeera added that Italian-Thai, Thailand's largest construction company, is building a deepwater port for container shipping to compete with Singapore and China.

The halting of the coal plant was a setback for some who saw the power plant as a solution for the lack of electricity in the region; but it was a cause for celebration for environmentalists, who were pleased not only with the decision, but with their ability to speak out—Thein Sein lifted a ban on demonstrations in December).

From an AP story this week:

When 200 activists in green T-Shirts marched along a pristine Burma beach to protest plans for a coal plant, they expected a long, tough struggle against the powers that be. But then, something bizarre happened.

A deputy Cabinet minister asked for a meeting. He listened patiently to their concerns about pollution. And then he told them the government agreed: It would halt construction of the controversial 4,000-megawatt plant on Burma's southern panhandle... "We were shocked," said Aung Zaw Hein of the activist group, the Dawei Development Association, which staged the protest last month. "He asked us, 'do you love your region?' Then he said, 'We love it, too. We just need to work together.'"

Good for Society, Good for the Planet
Read the full Al Jazeera piece for a quick layout of the country's political landscape and to brush up on some of Burma's recent history, but the author interprets these and other recent events as cause for optimism about a freer, fairer political future for Burma.

And as the Committee to Protect Journalists has pointed out, when journalists are free to do their jobs—hopefully one result of the recent political reforms—and report stories, including on environmental issues, that may not be particularly popular, society and the environment both benefit.

Suspicions Remain
The AP story puts the decision on the coal plant into context, explaining that it's not a simple win and doesn't leave the protesters confident, even if it seems like a big step forward:

Hein's group takes no credit for the decision to halt the plant, though, and remains suspicious of government motives. But the fact that President Thein Sein's administration would even sit down and listen to any protesters at all is a testament to the dramatic reforms now under way here.

And cancellation of the plant doesn't necessarily mean a pro-environment policy: at least two other special economic zones are reportedly in the works, one near the commercial capital Yangon and the other in Kyaukphyu, where the China-Myanmar pipeline starts and a deep-sea port is nearly finished.

But the ability to protest, and for the protesters to have these discussions with decision-makers, is promising. The Al Jazeera piece pointed to another recent decision from Thein Sein:

Facing strong environmental and labour protests by activists and NGOs, President Thein Sein has halted construction of the Chinese-backed Myitsone hydroelectric dam, which would have been one of the largest dams in the world (152m tall) and was projected to supply 3,600 to 6,000MW of electricity, largely to Yunnan Province in China.

Tags: Asia | Coal