The coal hard truth

The Prayut Chan-o-cha government has missed a golden opportunity in the first six weeks of this year. It should have just announced it has dropped all plans and studies to build coal-fired power plants in Krabi and Songkhla in the South rather than invoke yet another delay, which gives the impression of weakness and indecision.

At the same time, a new project seems to indicate the country's leaders may be operating on double standards.

Opponents to the plants from Thepha district in Songkhla travelled to Bangkok recently to protest against the projects. They announced they would leave when the government agreed to drop them, thus ridding their region of the threat of another highly polluting power plant.

Gen Prayut responded by announcing the two projects would be delayed indefinitely. He blamed what he termed "divisions within the community" in Songkhla. Then just last week, police began a campaign to intimidate those who dare voice their opposition by threatening protesters on a pavement that they would be forcibly removed and arrested if they did not pack up and leave of their own volition.

This distressing and unnecessary turn of events mirrors other clumsily handled relations with those who oppose details of Gen Prayut's top-down energy policy.

In early December, during a mobile cabinet meeting in Songkhla, a group of Thepha residents staged a protest walk. Local police attacked the marchers, beating three of them and arresting 16 on serious charges. The police refused to withdraw the charges despite demands to this effect from civic groups.

Gen Prayut passed up a chance to engage in reasonable discussions with the anti-coal-plant demonstrators. He ignored the sit-down protest staged close to his office, rejecting any chance of dialogue or reconciliation.

Predictably enough, the original five Thepha protesters have since grown in number and influence. The protest has now been taken up by the so-called Network of Songkhla-Pattani Residents Against Coal-Fired Power Plants. Save Andaman from Coal, a second group from nearby Krabi, subsequently teamed up with them.

On Monday some 40 members of this new civic coalition began a hunger strike at the UN Building in Bangkok.

However it is the protesters in Krabi, which enjoys ample supplies of renewable energy, including waste from palm plantations, who have arguably been more successful than their Songkhla compatriots in confronting the prime minister's energy plans.

When a large group of them began a roadside, sit-down demonstration a year ago this week, the government caved in within 10 days. Even then, however, Gen Prayut could not bring himself to admit the civic-minded southerners -- who completed a study showing the province had the potential to rely completely on renewable energy -- had a point. Instead, he fashioned a "solution" in which the government, and especially Gen Prayut himself, were portrayed as the victims of narrow-minded, parochial provincials.

Now a new wrinkle has emerged which has opened the government up to charges of hypocrisy.

Last Friday, it awarded a 30-billion-baht contract to Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems of Japan to supply equipment for a new, two-turbine, 5,300-megawatt power plant. This will be built at a cleared but still undisclosed spot near Bangkok. No coal will be used as it will be powered by two turbines fuelled exclusively by gas. Even though coal plants are kept outside Bangkok, people in the city cannot escape the impact of this harmful fossil fuel. Reports suggest the smog now blanketing the city is being caused by coal-fired power plants in Rayong.

Gen Prayut has effectively refused two opportunities to advance his energy policy. The first was a rare chance to consult with well-informed activist groups and show their opinions matter; the second would have been to axe both projects and declare there are no more in the pipeline. Either would have been a win-win -- for the country and Gen Prayut. Continued delay is a failure of leadership.

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