Energy, Governance and Security in Thailand and Myanmar (Burma)

By Gould-Davies, Nigel | Contemporary Southeast Asia, April 2018 | Go to article overview

Energy, Governance and Security in Thailand and Myanmar (Burma)


Gould-Davies, Nigel, Contemporary Southeast Asia


Energy, Governance and Security in Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). By Adam Simpson. Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2017. Softcover: 271pp.

Southeast Asia is the fastest growing region in the world, and this growth needs energy to fuel it. The International Energy Agency's 2017 report sees the region's energy demand rising by nearly two-thirds by 2040. Efforts to meet this demand have led to environmental damage, abuse of local community rights, and the disappearance and death of campaigners opposed to energy projects.

In his latest book, Adam Simpson explores resistance to four energy projects: the Yadana, Shwe and Salween dams in Myanmar, and the Thai-Malaysian gas pipeline in Thailand. Drawing on detailed research and extensive fieldwork, he provides a "thick description" of local activist networks that have mobilized against these projects, and the transnational ties they have developed. As he notes, these two states, though neighbours, are politically very different. During the period covered by this study (early 1990s to 2013), Myanmar was the most repressive, and Thailand the most open country in the region. A major, if perhaps unsurprising, conclusion is that environmental activism proved easier in the latter. By contrast, in the more repressive conditions of Myanmar, resistance was sometimes feasible only through an activist diaspora working across or beyond borders.

While very different, the two countries are linked by energy. Simpson is onto something important when he notes that Thailand, where local opposition to energy projects can be vigorous, has been outsourcing some of its supply to more repressive states. This casts helpful light on an understudied theme of wider significance.

Simpson does a service in showing how activists have organized themselves under sometimes very difficult conditions. He adopts a familiar and engaged "critical" posture that is commendably committed to the welfare of the powerless and oppressed. But this perspective is, inevitably, a partial one, and gives rise to three reservations.

First, activist claims are accepted at face value. Yet not all are necessarily accurate, however strong the merits of their underlying grievances. For example, the author endorses a critique of the Thai--Malaysian pipeline on the grounds that Thailand should not export its energy resources (pp. 103-4, 197). But this pipeline is supplied by the Malaysia-Thailand Joint Development Area, whose gas is not only Thailand's to use. If Thailand did not share some of this production with Malaysia, the project would never have been built, depriving Thailand of a significant source of energy. Similarly, Islamic villages in southern Thailand affected by the pipeline "identified their oppression with that of the global campaign being waged against Muslims" (p. 162). This "process of identification was expedited by 'outside activists who brought greater awareness... of international/global aspects of anti-Muslim sentiment after 9/11'" (p. 105). Simpson does not consider whether this is a fair or an invidious construction, nor does he question the motives of the "outside activists" spreading it. …

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