Washington University Students for International Collaboration on the Environment

Archive for November, 2010

How do you choose between economic development and the environment? Don’t ask Myanmar…

An Industrial Project That Could Change Myanmar


DAWEI, MYANMAR — The vast, pristine stretch of coastline here is almost deserted, save for fishermen hauling their bountiful catches onto white-sand beaches. But a deal signed this month would transform these placid waters into a seaport for giant cargo ships. Cashew nut groves and rice fields would be plowed under and replaced with a warren of factories, refineries and an expansive coal-burning power plant.

Myanmar, which is run by a repressive military regime that controls both economic and political life, recently captured the world’s attention with its first elections in two decades and the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s leading dissident, from house arrest.

But the Dawei Development Project, as it is known, could have as much of an impact on Myanmar’s future as the decades-old political chess games between the military and its opponents — and perhaps more.

The deal, signed Nov. 2, calls for what would be by far the largest industrial area in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma. In an impoverished, relatively cloistered country where malnourishment is widespread, the factories and refineries could provide jobs on an unprecedented scale, not unlike the special economic zones that China and Vietnam set up in recent decades.

“We need tons of workers,” said Premchai Karnasuta, the president of Italian-Thai Development, a conglomerate based in Bangkok that was awarded the contract after years of negotiations and surveys of the area. “We will mobilize millions of Burmese.”

A work force on that scale seems years away; engineers at the company speak of hiring tens of thousands of people over the first five years of construction. But analysts see the project as a landmark development for the region in many other ways.

Foreign companies building plants here would be freed from the restraints of increasingly strict antipollution laws elsewhere in the region. For Thailand, the project would be a cheap and convenient way to export its dirty refineries across the border.

“Some industries are not suitable to be located in Thailand,” Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Thai prime minister, said in explaining the project to viewers of his weekly television address recently. “This is why they decided to set up there,” he said, referring to Dawei.

The project is also crucial for geo-strategic reasons: Construction of a deep-sea port would create a shortcut between Europe and Indochina. Companies in Thailand and the fast-growing economies of Vietnam and Cambodia could save fuel and time by bypassing the long journey through the Strait of Malacca, a detour of several thousand kilometers.

The project has backing at the highest levels of both the Thai and Myanmar governments, including Myanmar’s dictator, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, who appears to be treating it as an experiment in opening the largely state-controlled economy.

“Than Shwe said he wanted this project to be like the Shenzhen economic zone,” Mr. Premchai said at a news conference this month, referring to the city where southern China’s industrial transformation began three decades ago.

Virgin territory

Italian-Thai has been awarded a huge chunk of territory for the project — 250 square kilometers, or about 97 square miles, more than four times the size of Manhattan. There are also plans to develop hotels and resorts further down Myanmar’s wild and sparsely populated southern coast, which extends 500 kilometers, or about 300 miles, south.

The coastline here is a rare blank slate in an otherwise crowded part of the world. In addition to the power plant, the company is planning a steel mill, an oil refinery, a petrochemical complex, a shipbuilding yard, a fertilizer factory and many other facilities.

Workers have already broken ground — construction on the road to Thailand is under way — but there remains the possibility that the project will founder. Ethnic rebels inhabit the hills around the site, though they have been relatively quiet in recent years.

Sean Turnell, an expert on the Burmese economy at Macquarie University in Sydney, said he was optimistic about the project’s prospects, provided that Italian-Thai can follow through with financing and that the Myanmar government does not interfere.

“Will the government really leave this alone? In the past they haven’t been able to resist the temptation,” Mr. Turnell said.

Italian-Thai — which gets its name from a partnership formed five decades ago between an Italian engineer and a Thai medical doctor — has been given exemptions from import duties and a 75-year concession to build and operate the heavy-industrial part of the project, as well as a 40-year concession for light industry, like garment factories. After that, according to the deal, the concession can be extended, or control can revert to the Myanmar government.

The company estimates that infrastructure for the project will cost $8 billion; it says it has secured the financing, from a private bank that it would not name. Other companies, including the Thai petrochemical giant PTT, have expressed interest but have been ultimately noncommittal.

One of the largest Thai banks, Kasikorn, said it would not offer financing for projects in Myanmar because of “political risk.”

Anan Amarapala, vice president of the marine division of Italian-Thai, said Chinese companies had no such fears. “Japanese, Korean and Chinese companies have been flying in nonstop to meet us,” he said in an interview.

The Thai government, for its part, is highly supportive of the project. It has been under consideration since the late 1990s, and all Thai governments, before and after the 2006 military coup, have supported it — a rare example of unanimity across Thailand’s fractured political landscape.

In that sense, the Dawei project highlights the ineffectiveness of economic sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union on Myanmar’s junta. Myanmar’s neighbors, especially Thailand, China and India, have been rushing to do business with the country.

Mr. Premchai, the president of Italian-Thai, said there was so much interest from other nations that when the military government asked him for a decision, he could not hesitate. “They asked me, ‘Are you interested in doing this project?’ I thought if we didn’t take it, the foreigners would definitely get it. So I said, ‘I’ll take it,”’ Mr. Premchai said.

Chinese businesses are already dominant in many parts of Myanmar. A state-owned Chinese firm has begun construction of a pipeline that will carry gas and oil from another port in Myanmar, near the city of Sittwe, to southern China. The purpose of that project is much the same as Dawei’s: bypassing the transportation chokehold of the Strait of Malacca and speeding up oil shipments from the Middle East for China’s energy-hungry economy.

A free hand

For Thai companies, the business environment in Myanmar could hardly be more different from that at home — or more convenient for them. In Thailand, new private development requires environmental impact reports and hearings with local residents, obstacles that have snarled a number of high-profile projects.

In Dawei, the government simply told local residents to leave.

A group of farmers interviewed in their fields said they had not been consulted about the project but were told by a local leader that they would have to move. They were offered land elsewhere, they said, but it was not suitable for grazing cattle or cultivating rice. The idea of working on the project itself did not seem to entice them, and no representatives from Italian-Thai had made any offers yet, they said.

“Maybe there will be opportunities,” said one farmer. “But right now, we are in trouble.”

Local residents said the residents of 19 villages, each home to about 5,000 people, would be forced to leave. That number could not be confirmed. Italian-Thai said it calculated that 3,800 households would have to move.

“We are still in the process of negotiating with the villagers,” said Mr. Anan of Italian-Thai. As in most parts of Myanmar, which underwent a massive nationalization of assets in the 1960s, the land belongs to the state.

“It is totally different from Thailand,” Mr. Anan said in an interview. “Thais would argue about compensation and go to court. That’s not the case with this project.”

For foreign companies, the project also means less environmental oversight. In the case of Thailand, new laws that require more environmental safeguards have slowed the expansion of the industrial complex at Map Ta Phut, the country’s largest petrochemical facility.

Local residents at Map Ta Phut have pointed to data indicating higher cancer rates and polluted air and groundwater — and government studies have backed them up. A group of residents filed a lawsuit that last year led to a court injunction on future development; the injunction was later lifted, after protracted negotiations.

By contrast, Italian-Thai officials said that there were no laws in Myanmar covering environmental protection but that they had conducted their own assessment of the likely impact in Dawei.

“You have to think of Myanmar as Thailand 50 years ago,” said Surin Vichian, the project manager in charge of engineering. “There’s nothing in the country but wilderness and cheap labor.”

The Dawei project would help Thailand meet its energy needs while avoiding the brunt of the pollution from the power’s generation. A massive 6,000-megawatt, coal-fired power plant planned for Dawei would transmit power to Thailand.

Thailand already relies heavily on Myanmar for energy; the Dawei project is only a few dozen kilometers south of a pipeline to Thailand built more than a decade ago by the U.S. oil company Chevron and the French oil company Total, and which supplies electricity for greater Bangkok. The sale of gas to Thailand, worth $4 billion last year alone, has been crucial in helping buttress the power of the military leadership in Myanmar.

The Dawei project includes a profit-sharing agreement with the Myanmar government, but executives from Italian-Thai said they could not divulge details.

A PowerPoint presentation prepared by Italian-Thai and obtained by the International Herald Tribune described the site, known as northern Maungmagan, as ideal. The water is deep enough to accommodate ships and oil-carrying supertankers with loads of up to 300,000 tons, it said. A number of islands help form a barrier for the port. The adjacent area is largely flat and has plentiful water supplies, making it suitable for factories and refineries that will manufacture plastics and other petrochemical products.

The city of Dawei does not seem entirely prepared for what is coming. It has four traffic lights, dilapidated British colonial villas and horse-drawn carts that clip-clop along potholed streets. The region’s poverty and its decrepit infrastructure have left it isolated from central Myanmar, let alone the rest of the world.

The mountainous jungle along the Thai border to the east is so thick that smugglers bring in motorcycles from Thailand on bamboo poles, because there are no paths on which to ride them. But once the planned highway is completed, it is conceivable that Bangkok will be just a few hours’ drive away.

The company said the first phase of construction — the road to Thailand, a water reservoir, and the coal-fired power plant, among other projects — would be completed within five years, while finishing the whole project would take a decade.

The Thais are drawing on their experience in building Map Ta Phut, the massive petrochemical complex linked to pollution and higher cancer rates. Somchet Thinaphong, who helped devise the master plan for Map Ta Phut, is the managing director of Dawei Development, which is to oversee the project.

“This will be exactly 10 times bigger than Map Ta Phut,” Mr. Somchet said.

U.N. official to visit

A senior U.N. official was to visit Myanmar over the weekend to meet the country’s military rulers and the recently released democracy activist Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, diplomats said Friday, The Associated Press reported from Yangon.

Vijay Nambiar, chief of staff for the U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, was probably coming to “feel the temperature” in the country following the first election in 20 years and the democracy leader’s release from house arrest, one diplomat said on condition of anonymity, citing protocol.



China and Pollution Abatement Measures

Chinese citizens demonstrate themselves to be among the most crafty and resourceful on the planet. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-News/2010/1111/Anti-pollution-efforts-in-Chinese-city-are-too-effective-for-city-to-afford


Hey everyone again,

Check out the 2010 Cohort page – all the bios for both Fudan delegates and U.S. delegates have been posted. Delegates, you’ve had your icebreakers, but read the submitted bios to get to know  your peers a little more!

Special thanks to Wenqi for bringing bagels and setting up breakfast for the Conference. Special thanks to Summer and Karen for preparing materials, name tags, and programs.

Yesterday was the Professor Biswas presentation and the Carolina Fojo presentation – thank you to all attendees, both went very well.

Jennifer Smith, Professor Axelbaum, and Professor Blankenship spoke this morning. Stephanie Oshita spoke this afternoon. Join us at 4:30 this afternoon to hear from the Chancellor, and then 4:45 from Professor Wertsch.

Keep up the good work, WUSICE members and all of our delegates! Tonight is Multicultural Night – see you all there.


Anne, PR


Hey everyone!

The Conference begins tomorrow – it’s finally here! After all this planning, it’s actually all happening! Thank you to all the WUSICE members who have worked so hard to putting this together.

So yesterday we painted the big ball at the Underpass – it looks great! I also met some of the Fudan University students who came to help – it was such a good experience. Make sure you walk by to check out our work. Thanks so much to everyone who took the time out of their busy schedule to come paint.

Everything on the site is updated – speakers bios and the Conference schedule. Check out the pages to get ready for the next few days.

I hope everyone attends all the events that they can – this is such a wonderful opportunity to not only add to your knowledge of international environmental issues, but to also interact with students from a foreign school! Share ideas, meet new people, and make great friendships.

Also, keep the posts coming. I’ve been reading all the articles you’ve been posting – they’re great and really get us thinking.

Anne, PR

Treading Water as the U.S. goes into Cancun

Building on Richard’s post about China’s expectations going into the upcoming climate talks in Cancun, I wanted to add a post on the U.S. position.

This morning’s Washington Post article does a great job of outlining the difficult bargaining position the U.S. will have in Cancun.  Although President Obama made a pledge to climate action, the failure of the U.S. climate bill in the Senate and the lack of political support for legislation makes his promise hollow.  Interest in the climate bill has been eclipsed by the fiscal stimulus and health care bills. Rather than legislation, U.S. negotiators will only be able to point to recent regulations to prove their commitment to reducing greenhouse gases.

At recent climate talks in Tianjin, China, Chinese negotiators questioned whether the U.S. and other developed countries will hold true to their commitment at Copenhagen to provide $100 billion in international climate aid to developing countries.  In response, UN advisers are looking beyond governments to the private sector to help raise money.  A Reuters report calls the goal “feasible,” and lists a variety of funding sources:

between $2bn and $27bn could be raised from financial transaction taxes on foreign exchange, $4bn to $9bn from shipping, $2bn to $3bn from aviation, $3bn to $8bn from removal of fossil fuel subsidies and $8bn to $38bn from auctioning carbon allowances.

The U.S. has reaffirmed its commitment to give aid, and the E.U. appears to be the only party actually intent on following the Kyoto Protocol, so it seems that making substantial commitments is not the problem.

The biggest challenge in Cancun will not be in making commitments, but in agreeing over the terms.  In Richard’s post, Su Wei writes:

the world should take responsibility for their historical cumulative emissions and current high per capita emissions to change their unsustainable way of life and to substantially reduce their emissions and, at the same time, provide financial support and transfer technology to developing countries.

This statement poses problems to U.S. negotiators, since the U.S. is the top producer of cumulative emissions at 29% (China is 4th at 7.6%).  If we look at current emissions, the U.S. and China are on more equitable grounds.  Furthermore, a particularly important point of contention at Copenhagen was whether or not China is a developing country.

To get even more nit-picky, one could argue that a portion of Chinese emissions are really outsourced U.S. emissions.  On the other hand, the looming currency war highlights China’s undervalued currency as a driver of the ongoing trade imbalance between China and the U.S.

Again, going into Cancun (and WUSICE!) we need to focus on the terms, not the commitments.

Nadav Rindler

Washington University in St. Louis


Salutations! My name is John Delurey; I am a US Delegate and a Junior at Washington University. I figured I’d put something on here that I’ve been thinking about for a few days now so that you guys might help me ruminate. Unfortunately, I’ll pose more questions than I’ll answer.

The other day I was listening to the radio when I heard a few alarming facts regarding Chinese mines. In 2009, roughly 2,600 people died in mining-related accidents. On average between January 2001 and October 2004 there was a coalmine related death every 7.4 days. These facts were introduced in response to a story regarding a mine disaster in the Chinese province of Henan that has left at least 32 people dead. No, I’m not referring to the Chilean mine success story. These two catastrophes occurred almost simultaneously, yet it was the Chilean mine rescue that dominated the Western press. Why is this? Are Chinese censors the sole culprit? If not, is there a dangerous mentality based on the seemingly unfathomable population of China?

Could it be that there are simply too many Chinese deaths related to coal mining to attract international media? Proportionally, the deaths are not a large fraction of the total population. They are still deaths, however, and they should not be overlooked. They should be factored into future mine reforms and the potential shift to less dangerous energy sources.

Viewing the situation from a westerner’s perspective, China’s population elicits a certain degree of hopelessness. China is so geographically and demographically enormous that it is hard to imagine effective reform. It’s so massive that its momentum carries it in one direction once it’s going. It is this momentum that can be so intimidating to those interested in international dialogue. This is obviously from the outside looking in, and I understand that I have an incredible amount to learn from a certain 11 Chinese delegates. I eagerly await your arrival!