Not in my backyard

In September 2009, Thailand’s Central Administrative Court made a ruling which continues to shake the country to this day. A group of villagers in Map Ta Phut in Rayong, home to one of the largest industrial estates in the world, had filed a lawsuit claiming pollution there was blighting their health. In a decision which shocked Thailand’s business community, the court suspended 76 industrial projects worth around $US10 billion. Most spent almost a year under suspension – much to the dismay of their multinational investors.

Since the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra, many have raised legitimate concerns over the health of democracy in Thailand. Map Ta Phut showed there remain vital signs. Citizens, small people with little clout, opposed the will of big business, and the state listened. In Burma, where the military retains a vice-like grip on all branches of government, such a ruling would be unthinkable.

This cannot escape the Thai government. Now, as part of the deep-sea port development at Dawei (Tavoy), on Burma’s west coast, Thailand appears to be exporting to Burma the very kind of heavy industry that locals at Map Ta Phut objected to so fiercely. Hypocritical? Possibly. Opportunistic? Without a doubt.

On 11 October, the Bangkok Post published a revealing interview with Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Thailand, Abhisit said, needed to diversify its development strategy and stop relying so much on heavy industry. “I don’t think the people want it in their backyard,” he explained. In light of Map Ta Phut, Abhisit’s comments make perfect sense.

But the interview was timely. The very same day, the Thai premier paid a one-day visit to Burma. He made a courtesy call on Senior General Than Shwe – with whom he was pictured shaking hands and looking notably uncomfortable – and discussed business with premier Thein Sein. On one key issue, the reopening of the border at Mae Sot, Abhisit failed to deliver. But on another, far more important front, Abhisit’s visit was a victory. The deep-sea port at Dawei, it was agreed, would be developed as a new industrial zone.

The idea that Thailand needs a deep-sea port and industrial centre on the Andaman Sea is nothing new. Today, most Thai exports are shipped out from the ports at Map Ta Phut and Laem Chabang on the Gulf of Thailand. To reach India and the markets to the west, cargo has to round Singapore and pass through the congested Straits of Malacca. It’s easy to see why a deep-sea port on the Andaman would be a boon for Thai business.

The fishing community of Pak Bara in Satun province, close to some of Thailand’s most stunning beach destinations, has long been mooted as a site for the facility. But locals there objected. In July 2010, 500 residents gathered to protest the project, claiming it would cause irreparable damage to the natural environment and damage traditional livelihoods. Now, the project appears to have been downgraded – in favour of Dawei.

Italian-Thai Development, Thailand’s largest construction company, is poised to sign the contract to develop the Burmese port. The deal is worth an estimated $US13 billion, reportedly making it the largest ever single investment in Burma. The project will include a 160 kilometer railway linking the port with Kanchanaburi in Thailand, giving the country’s exports much quicker access to the Indian Ocean. It will also include industrial estates hosting petrochemicals plants, steel mills and other heavy industry.

So while Abhisit talked of Thais no longer wanting heavy industry on their own turf, he was signing a deal that could lead to a new Map Ta Phut in Burma. As he is no doubt aware, Burma has no laws mandating environmental impact assessments for large-scale projects, and communities have no say in the decision-making processes which may lead to their destruction. And with the first elections in two decades showing every sign of being a sham, political accountability is sorely lacking.

According to the Independent Mon News Agency (IMNA), Dawei deep-sea port has already sparked intense concern among local villagers. The Dawei port authorities denied there had been any relocation, but a land owner told IMNA that villagers living near the site have been told to leave their homes. Others are terrified that they, too, will soon be forced to relocate and that their livelihoods will be ruined.

This will no doubt cause little concern in the boardroom of Italian-Thai – or in Government House. And sadly, Thailand is not the only Asian democracy moving politically unpalatable industries to Burma.

In March 2009, a renowned Indian scientist half-starved himself to death protesting a dam on a tributary of the Ganges. Professor AD Agarwal called off his fast after the authorities stopped work on the project, a 600 megawatt hydropower facility at Loharinag Pala in the Himalayas. Six months later, the project was cancelled.

Loharinag Pala is by no means the only hydro project which has faced fierce opposition in India. More famous still is the Narmada Dam Project, a series of huge dams on the Narmada River in Gujarat. Controversy has dogged the multi-billion-dollar scheme since the late 1980s, mostly over the relocation of some 200,000 people due to rising waters. Delhi eventually pushed the project through – but not without mass protests, hunger strikes and a high-profile campaign by novelist Arundhati Roy.

Now, India’s state-owned National Hydro Power Company Limited (NHPC) is eyeing huge hydro investments in Burma. In April, the Wall Street Journal suggested NHPC was planning two new 510-megawatt and 520-megawatt dams, noting that in India, “progress on hydroelectric power capacity addition has been slow due to environmental concerns and issues related to resettlement of people displaced because of the construction of dams”.

And these hydro projects will not be the Indian power giant’s first in Burma. Construction on the $US3 billion Tamanthi Dam on the Chindwin River in northern Burma started in 2007. The Burma Rivers Network, a coalition of dam-affected communities, claims 380 households in surrounding areas have already been forcibly relocated. The project will eventually displace 30,000 people and flood 17,000 acres of fertile farmland, according to BRN. Of the power the dam generates, 80 percent will go to India.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that India and Thailand are taking advantage of a lack of political accountability to do their dirty work in Burma. They are, of course, not the only countries doing so. China’s investment in hydro-power projects on Burmese rivers dwarfs that of India. In September 2008, environmental rights body EarthRights International claimed at least 45 Chinese multinationals were involved in 63 hydropower projects in Burma. These projects have resulted in the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of Burmese citizens. This is not to mention China’s interests in mining, logging, oil and gas, all of which can have serious implications for Burma’s communities and natural environment.

Still, given its own authoritarian record, you could hardly accuse China of hypocrisy. As democracies in which citizens have some space to express dissent, it is more objectionable to see Thailand and India behaving the same way. Burma needs the political accountability that comes with real democracy. Otherwise, it risks becoming a dumping ground – for the kind of destructive industries its neighbours no longer want to tolerate.

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