Mon Rebels Prohibit Controversial Coal Plant

By Lawi Weng 28 January 2015

RANGOON — Ethnic rebels in Mon State announced on Tuesday that they will not allow a proposed coal-fired power plant to be built in the southeastern state.

The proposed 1,280 megawatt power plant was first proposed during a preliminary consultation with local communities in Ye Township in April 2014.

The project, which locals found confusing and potentially dangerous, was expected to be built in Inn Din village at a cost of about US$2.7 billion.

Details about the development are scarce, but local communities and the state’s ethnic leadership voiced skepticism about claims that it would benefit local communities, positing instead that most or all of the energy produced would be exported to neighboring Thailand.

In the latest bid to stop the development, the New Mon State Party (NMSP), and its armed counterpart, the Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA), issued a statement arguing that the state’s political situation remains unstable and unsuitable for such a development.

Nai Hongsar Bong Khaing, a spokesperson for the NMSP based in the state capital Moulmein, told The Irrawaddy that allowing the development to proceed would contravene party rules on three counts: political instability is too risky for large-scale developments; local communities and religious leaders have not been adequately consulted; and environmental risks have not been analyzed to the party’s satisfaction.

“We found that the current political situation is not yet conducive to political dialogue. According to our party’s policy, we cannot let the company build this power plant until we have reached a political settlement,” said Nai Hongsar, adding that because the majority of locals oppose the project, “we have to make this decision.”

Any progress toward approval of the development would depend on the outcome of the peace process, he said, as talks geared toward a nationwide ceasefire agreement have stalled over disagreements between ethnic rebels and government actors.

The government has pushed for the project since early consultations began last year, but a series of meetings with the state’s ethnic politicians and communities were met with reprove and sometimes protest.

Mon State Chief Minister Ohn Myint, a member of the leading Union Solidarity and Development Party, met with the NMSP in 2014 to discuss the projects potential benefits in the poor and under-served state, where many still live without 24-hour access to electricity and pay high fees for basic services.

“[Ohn Myint] told us that the plant will benefit local development, and that the government would not allow the company to damage the environment,” said Nai Hongsar, in reference to their earlier conference. “But we are worried that our people will not get as many benefits as the minister said.”

On the national level, an ethnic Mon Upper House lawmaker, argued that the benefits outweigh potential risks, given the level of development in his home state. Nai Banyar Aung Moe’s constituency in Ye Township, he said, suffers a severe shortage of electricity resulting in high prices that hinder development.

“Normally [in areas served by the national grid], one unit of electricity costs 35 kyats ($0.35), but people in Ye have to pay 500,” he said. Ye Township is not yet connected to the national power grid, but Nai Banyar Aung Moe said the project could offer the energy needed for development.

“Unless we allow the building of coal power plants in our region, development will remain behind other countries. Our Mon people will be slave workers in Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, because our country is poor,” he said, recalling what he viewed as a missed opportunity when the NMSP refused to allow development of a deep sea port in Moulmein, a proposal later rejiggered for a new location in Dawei.

Lower House lawmaker Mi Myint Than, who is also ethnic Mon, argued that the project could create jobs and offer a new course for development in the state, which is currently reliant on the China-controlled rubber trade.

“China controls the rubber prices,” she said, “but if there was electric power, Japanese companies would invest in our region.”

The NMSP was established in 1958 and remains Mon State’s dominant political party. Projects opposed by the party, such as the deep sea port, have been suspended in the past.

The NMSP’s armed wing, MNLA, has been at intermittent odds with the Burma Army, but secured a new ceasefire with the government in April 2012.