Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Thailand: For Thepa’s Pattani Bay community, a coal- red power plant could bring an entire way of life to an end – and in the process accelerate climate change across the planet
‘Just living is not enough. I must have fresh air and freedom.’
—Thepa protest sign
Thepa is a small minority Muslim village in Thailand’s southern province of Songkhla, nestled in Pattani Bay. Its people rely heavily for their livelihood on the sea and the coastline, with its mud ats and mangrove forests that are natural sh nurseries. Estuaries run from the Sankalakhiri mountain range, contributing to the bay’s rich biodiversity. Coconut, durian and watermelon groves supplement their fishery activities.
Thepa is part of the former sultanate of Patani that existed before it was annexed by the British to Thailand in 1902. It remains a contested zone to this day, where violence has simmered between those fighting for independence and the Thai state. Tensions run deep between the central Thai administration, relentless in the face of decades of failed assimilationist and centralizing policies, and the local Muslim populace.
When Thailand’s state-owned Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) proposed a coal- red power plant and nearby deep sea port in Thepa in 2014, the locals were immediately concerned. More than 200 families were set to be evicted with no clear plans for relocation or restitution, while mosques, Islamic schools, graveyards, houses and agricultural land were also located within the proposed area. Many were aware that such a project would not only destroy their community and way of life, but also lead to further violence from the independence movement and a heavy-handed response from Thai security forces.
Plans for the Thepa power plant, along with its twin plant in Krabi, are in stark contrast to the Thai administration’s international commitments, particularly those made in its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), under the Paris Agreement. A report, submitted in 2016, notes that as ‘a developing country highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change,’ it intended to ‘reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent from the projected business-as- usual (BAU) level by 2030.’ Nothing is mentioned, however, about its plans to build coal-red power plants in pristine coastal areas.
‘The Thai government always has two-faced politics’, explains Dr. Supat Hasuwannakit, director of Green South Foundation (GSF), a local environmental civil society organization (CSO), and doctor at the nearby Chana Hospital for the last 20 years. ‘One face is a strong country moving toward Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) commitments in the international platform; the other is at national platforms, where the Thai government is always reluctant to work hard toward their commitments because industrial groups are strong in Thailand. They have a very close relationship, so it is not easy to reduce CO2 and greenhouse gases to implement their climate commitments.’
The planned 2,200-Megawatt (MW) Thepa plant will be constructed in an area of 4.5 square kilometres and is just one of a total of six new coal- red electricity-generating plants proposed by EGAT to be completed by 2025. EGAT governor Kornrasit Pakchotanon asserted that EGAT needed to be the market leader and the power plants were the means by which to achieve this goal.
Despite the signi cant risks this development posed to local communities whose culture and livelihoods depended on the sea, consultations with residents were deeply awed. An Environmental Health Impact Assessment (EHIA) was privately commissioned by EGAT in 2014. Community members who opposed the project were not allowed to participate in the public review. Coils of razor wire surrounded the venue for the hearing, and the governor of Songkhla province sent 1,500 troops and police to prevent any villagers opposed to the project from gaining access. The junta administration even issued an order with the intention of speeding up construction by removing certain procedural safeguards and checks.
GSF, along with a local community group known as the Network of Songkhla-Pattani People Against Coal, initiated a sustained non-violent community resistance campaign. A series of monthly forums were held to increase public solidarity, increase community knowledge relating to the power plant and climate change impacts and give training to community teams that would assist with community-led EHIAs. Bringing together a wide range of different groups, including women and youth, the wider network began organizing peaceful protests, with demonstrators dressed in green calling for an immediate halt to the power plant. In December 2017, following continued repression by Thai authorities to prevent public gatherings, 17 activists were arrested and charged with violating this junta order.
In February 2018, community members continued their resistance with protests in Bangkok, organizing outside the Government House and subsequently undertaking hunger strikes. In response, the Ministry of Energy announced that plans for the Thepa and Krabi plants would be postponed for three years. Shortly afterwards, the ministry signed an agreement to undertake a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) to assess the appropriateness of coal- red power in southern Thailand. GSF continued to pressure the Ministry of Energy to ensure that the government body responsible for the SEA would not be one that is aligned with the pro- coal movement. The National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) is now responsible for the study.
GSF and the wider anti-coal network are collaborating with the SEA process and support the selection of NIDA, which they believe will approach the study from a neutral standpoint. Following public hearings in April and May, the process is set to be completed by August 2019 – a timeframe that some community activists consider rushed. While the postponement of the project was a short-term victory for the coal resistance movement, many doubt that the project will be shelved entirely. According to Hasuwannakit, ‘we’re still not convinced that plans for southern coal are really gone since the SEA process is still ongoing, plus southern coal is also in the 20-year National Strategy Plan by the government.
Moreover, the Energy Ministry plans to bid out 8.3GW of new independent power plants (IPPs) which in international news they mention using coal as fuel but in Thai news, they don’t mention coal.’ For activists with experience in challenging state- imposed development projects in the region, this lack of transparency raises serious concerns.
Importantly, while rooted in resistance to the clear and immediate danger that the plant poses to the health, livelihoods and wellbeing of the local community, the protests have evolved to take on the larger consideration of climate change at a national and global level, with the certain damage that further coal plant construction would bring through added CO2 emissions giving an added impetus to activists and demonstrators. ‘The locals,’ says Hasuwannakit, ‘know very well about the negative impact of the coal- red power plant to their community. Yet they also now understand the connection to climate change at a basic level. They are proud that their Thepa group is part of the global movement fighting climate change.’