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Environmental activists in Burma have sought to capitalise on a recent decision by the government to suspend a massive coal-fired power plant in the country’s south by demanding a moratorium on all existing and planned coal projects.
The 4,000 MW plant in Tavoy would have produced enough power to support construction of a 200 square-kilometre industrial complex and buoy neighbouring Thailand’s energy needs. But after widespread grassroots opposition at the likely environmental and health impacts of the project, the government in early January scrapped the plan.
A joint statement from the Pa-Oh Youth Organisation (PYO) and the Shan Sapawa Environmental Organisation said that at the very least, thorough environmental impact assessments (IEAs) should be carried out prior to energy projects moving forward.
The groups pointed to the example of the Tigyit coal mine and power plant in Shan state, which despite generating only 120 MW of power, is affecting up to 12,000 people living nearby. A report compiled by PYO last year said that the plant was pumping more than 100 tonnes of toxic fly ash per day into the air and polluting nearby waterways.
The Tavoy plant however would have dwarfed Tigyit, and in keeping with other energy projects in Burma, the overwhelming bulk of output would have been sold abroad, rather than feeding energy-starved Burma.
Anti-Tavoy campaigners however are operating on risky terrain: earlier this week government officials warned the Dawei (Tavoy) Regional Development Group, which has been rallying locals to protest against the project that could displace up to 30,000 people, to keep quiet.
“They told us not to say things such as ‘there’s no need for locals to move’ or do other unnecessary things, and just to cooperate [with authorities],” a member of the group told DVB.
The future of the Tavoy plant however remains in doubt. It was initially thought that the lead company in the project, Ital-Thai, would urge the Burmese government to allow it to go ahead with a 400 MW plant that would power construction of the industrial complex, which is set to be Southeast Asia’s largest.
Some reports even suggested that the company would gauge the possibility of constructing an alternative plant, possibly natural gas or hydrocarbon. A decision on this is due to be made within three months.
The project, which will eventually run to around $US50 billion, is key to regional economies hungry for greater trade with the west. A major highway running from Kanchanaburi in Thailand to Tavoy will connect with a deep-sea port on Burma’s Andaman Sea coastline, which is being built to accommodate around 55 vessels laden with cargo at any one time.
In addition the site will house petrochemical refineries, steel mills and plastics factories, dramatically changing the sleepy fishing town of Tavoy into a crucial hub for Burmese and Southeast Asian industry.
Additional reporting by Min Lwin