Irrawaddy Division Minister Says No Coal Power Without Public’s OK

By Salai Thant Zin 25 November 2014

PATHEIN, Irrawaddy Division — Bowing to local pressure over a proposal to build a coal-fired power plant in the coastal region of Nga Yoke Kaung, the Irrawaddy Division government has backed off the plan and says it will not proceed with the project if it is against the public’s will.

“We won’t build the coal power plant if people do not agree,” said Saw Mya Thein, Irrawaddy Division minister for electricity and industry, during a discussion on environmental and social impact assessments as part of an Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) event held on Friday in Nga Yoke Kaung, a sub-township of Nga Pu Taw Township.

The minister made the statement in response to a question from a Nga Yoke Kaung resident who asked whether or not plans to build the power plant would proceed if people were against it.

More than 700 local residents were present at the discussion, and a chorus of voices expressing opposition to the power plant greeted the minister’s reply.

Nga Yoke Kaung is a coastal region comprised of two urban wards and 68 villages with a population of more than 35,000.

The minister’s comments ostensibly mark a victory for land rights and environmental activists who nationwide have often been on the losing end of battles over such concerns in the crush of development projects that have accompanied Burma’s opening to the West in 2011.

Public opposition to the power plant proposal was first aired in September, after the private companies and divisional government officials involved in the plan, including Saw Mya Thein, informed local residents of the plan at a joint press conference.

“We, locals, totally disagree with building a coal power plant that could cause a lot of harm to our region,” said Htein Lin, a local who attended Friday’s discussion.

“The emmissions produced by burning coal can harm the environment as well as the heart, lungs and kidneys of people. That’s why we don’t agree to it. If it is wind power or a gas-fired power plant, which causes less harm, we’ll accept it,” he added.

Thein Aung, chief minister of Irrawaddy Division, similarly said during a youth forum earlier this month in Pathein that it was up to the people to decide whether or not to build the coal power plant.

“We won’t do it unless there is a guarantee. We can terminate the plant if [responsible companies] fail to keep their word. The government will not make the decision. It is up to the people,” said Thein Aung.

The Ministry of Electric Power, a Burmese conglomerate under the name A1 Group of Companies and a Japanese consortium announced in September that they would partner to build the Nga Yoke Kaung coal power plant, with a total installed capacity of 300 megawatts.

The power plant was to be built on 200 acres of land and compensation would be paid for relocation costs and any land confiscated for the project, the A1 Company said. The company said it guaranteed that the power plant would not cause any harm to the environment or local people as it would employ advanced technologies, a promise that was met with skepticism.

Writer Sein Myint, a retired assistant director of Burma’s Ministry of Mines who now writes articles on environmental conservation, said coal power plants should not be given the green light in Burma because of technological requirements and the country’s weak environmental laws.

“Even if they have plans to ensure no impacts on the environment, the question is who will administer those plans effectively? The plant is in Nga Yoke Kaung and the environmental conservation department is in Pathein. So, how can those plans be administered? There are lots of technical and procedural difficulties and legal loopholes,” he said.