Although environmentally conscious investors have shied away from dirty power in favour of renewable sources in recent years, China’s state-owned fossil-fuel technology and financing might attract interest among Myanmar military leaders or those aligned with the regime, as more coal plants are planned to meet ambitious targets to provide the country’s rural areas with electricity.
“We were approached by Chinese researchers,” says Khun Oo. “They wanted to examine the reasons behind local communities opposing the coal-based investments but we declined to speak to them. Villagers want their land back, to restore it to what it used to be, but the government clings on to the need to operate this plant.”
Aiqun Yu, China researcher at San Francisco-based NGO Global Energy Monitor, says, “There are cases in Southeast Asia where Chinese financing is made available, and there are examples where a coal plant that does not meet pollution standards within China was exported and still received Chinese public finance, like in Cambodia.”
In nearby Vietnam, too, another country hungry for energy investment, China was reported to have sold outdated technology.
A farmer works in a field near a coal mining site in Tigyit. Photo: Robert Bociaga
According to a MATA report, prepared jointly with NGOs Greenpeace and Waterkeeper Alliance, a 2018 refurbishment of the Tigyit plant did not stop heavy metals from stored coal ash in the plant seeping out and damaging the health of locals.
“There have been continued reports of miscarriages, cancers and other serious diseases,” says Ye Win Myint, a MATA member responsible for monitoring the situation around Tigyit. “The plant is emitting more mercury than acceptable by international standards, mostly due to a lack of proper filtering.
“We hoped for a change in the attitude of the government,” adds Ye Win Myint, who in late 2019 met officials of the Environmental Conservation Department based in the capital, Naypyidaw. “But instead, after we passed the findings of the independent report to them, we encountered silence.”
A tree-planting drive in Tigyit organised by Myanmar’s Forestry Department in February. Photo: Robert Bociaga
In mid-2020 in Myanmar’s parliament in Naypyidaw, the deputy minister for electricity and energy, U Khin Maung Win, praised the Tigyit plant for its importance to the country’s development, and stated that trees planted by the Forest Department in the area around the power station were sufficient to deal with any pollution.
“I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh when I heard that,” says Sai Lynn Myat, a politician from the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy.
Fellow party member Sai Tun Aye had proposed that the plant be shut down, but the motion was rejected by parliament in May 2020.
“The communities have received seedlings both from the Forest Department and youth groups, but their impact is limited,” says Khun Oo. “Also, many trees do not survive due to lack of water in the hot season.”
Whether protesting the coup or the adverse effects of the power plant on the people of Tigyit, any form of dissent is becoming increasingly dangerous.
“I shut down the office [for the time being] and went into hiding,” says Khun Oo. “In the past, we criticised the military for their actions in Shan State, but these days, no one knows what will happen.”
A protest in Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State, calling for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar in February. Photo: Robert Bociaga
Police crack down on the protesters in Taunggyi. Photo: Robert Bociaga
Despite the real and potentially fatal risks, activists “organised two peaceful protests in October 2019 to draw the attention of the authorities”, says Daw Kan Kayn, who “mobilised through social media and youth groups, and together we marched to call for the shutdown of the Tigyit power plant”.
Facing detainment at best, and violence at worst, anti-coup protesters are demanding the restoration of democracy and the abolition of the 2008 constitution, which prescribes the special role of the army in guiding the so-called disciplined democracy. Although the act stipulated the separation of powers between the president, parliament, the judiciary and the armed forces, this was not observed, making reforms harder, if not impossible.
And yet, pockets of protest continue, and Daw Kan Kayn is not about to give up. “We need to be vocal about our rights,” he says, “and about our environment.”
This story was produced with support from the Rainforest Journalism Fund in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.