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Myanmar activists warily test new right to protest

Mon, 02/13/2012 - 11:13pm
TODD PITMAN - Associated Press - Associated Press

When 200 activists in green T-Shirts marched along a pristine Myanmar 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 Myanmar's southern panhandle.

In a long-repressed country whose people have grown accustomed to living in fear of government authority, it all seemed too good to be true. Just last year, anyone who dared even demonstrate in public would have likely have been beaten or detained by security forces.

"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.'"

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.

It's also a sign that Myanmar's civil society is beginning to stir in ways that would have been unthinkable before.

For almost half a century, the country was ruled by a reclusive, xenophobic clique of army officers who cracked down hard on any perceived dissent. The junta finally ceded power last year to a nominally civilian government which has embarked on an unexpected wave of reforms — freeing political prisoners, allowing democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi to run for parliament, opening the way for exiles to return.

Myanmar's most vocal activist groups have traditionally been based abroad in places where they can speak freely without fear of arrest. But there are around 800 registered non-governmental organizations and some 20,000 community groups working inside the country on charity, health and development issues, said Thant Myint-U, a prominent Myanmar historian and author.

These local civil society groups have quietly pushed for reform for years, and are responsible for "a big part of the changes that have taken place in Myanmar," he said.

Today, they are speaking up more than ever before, because "the political environment is far more open," the historian added.

In December, Thein Sein lifted a ban on demonstrations — allowing environmental groups like the Dawei Development Association to protest legally.

The group was formed around the same time, and shortly afterward sent an open letter to the presidency calling for the coal project to be canceled.

On Jan. 4, the activists staged a peaceful march along Maungmakan beach just outside Dawei, a rundown town south of the commercial capital, Yangon. They wore T-shirts that said "No Coal" and "Only Green Development." They took photos of themselves and posted them on the group's nascent Facebook page. They handed out pamphlets explaining how the plant could taint Myanmar's air and water.

A few days later, Deputy Railways Minister U Thaung Lwin asked to meet them. The official, who is chairman of a government committee managing a mass seaport project in Dawei that would include the coal plant, asked them "not to create a panic" by protesting the project, Hein recalled. Then he took them out to eat at a local guesthouse, and paid the tab.

Despite the apparent victory, the environmentalists still wonder how it happened.

"We're grateful the government did what they did, but ... we don't trust them 100 percent yet," Hein said.

Myo Aung, a local freelance journalist who also volunteers for the group, shared the sentiment. "There must be an ulterior motive," he said.

While the government may have had concerns over pollution, it's also possible a lack of funding played a part. The plant is an integral part of a behemoth $50 billion deep sea port project undertaken by Thailand's Italian-Thai Development construction company, which has been slow to attract investors.

The military-backed government may also be trying to boost its popularity among a skeptical populace ahead of April 1 by-elections in which Suu Kyi will run for parliament for the first time. Thein Sein is eager to show democratic progress to get crippling Western sanctions lifted.

Sean Turnell, an expert on Myanmar's economy at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, said there was growing national resentment over the sell-off of the country's natural resources abroad.

Much of the electricity the coal plant would have generated was destined for neighboring Thailand, and "in this case, the efforts of such (environmental) groups nicely coincided with the interests of the government," Turnell said.

Authorities here have made at least one similar about-face before.

In late September, Thein Sein abruptly suspended a controversial Chinese-backed hydroelectric dam in the country's north, the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam project.

Local activists praised that decision, too, but suspected it had more to do with the government's desire to assert independence from China or squash an issue that could unite political opponents than to curb environmental damage.

Dawei's environmentalists know they face plenty of challenges ahead.

A much smaller, 400-megawatt coal plant is still on the drawing board. It is needed for the seaport and a vast industrial complex which will link Myanmar's Indian Ocean coast to the rest of Southeast Asia with railways, highways and oil and gas pipelines. Industrial estates will house refineries, a steel mill, a fertilizer plant and a petrochemical complex. Some 20,000 villagers will be evicted from their homes.

Hein said his group's objective was not to stop the mega-project, which could help an undeveloped region where jobs are scarce, but rather to "make sure this is done responsibly, with transparency."

That goal will be especially crucial as international investors increasingly rush in to tap into a country widely considered one of Asia's last unspoiled frontiers.

U Tin Maung Swe, who chairs a government body helping oversee the Dawei project, said experts were studying other ways to fuel the still-hoped for 4,000 megawatt power plant.

He spoke of environment-friendly possibilities like hydropower, solar power, wind power — just the kind of "green" options the Dawei Development Association would like them to explore.

But if none of that works, Swe said, "at last, we will choose coal-fire power."

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