Energy, Governance and Security in Thailand and Myanmar (Burma): A Critical Approach to Environmental Politics in the South.

Expanding multinational programs (such as the Belmont Forum) with funds to examine energy provisioning ensure that a recent spate of books on energy development will only multiply. Simpson’s book at first glance might seem to contribute to this emerging dialogue.  Yet Simpson’s book is less concerned with energy than it is with characterizing environmental activist organizations. Citing a legacy of critical theory, Simpson channels his extensive research (1996-2011) through a political science framework by creating a prescriptive model of emancipatory activism. Chapter two, titled Activist Environmental Governance, for example, is a model-building exercise wherein environmental activist organizations are characterized by their potential for emancipatory action in four ways: challenging dominant political-social structures in pursuit of justice; creating dense informal networks with no single organization defining action; sharing an identity through practices and values that eschew hierarchy while promoting equity and justice; and, engaging in some form of public protest (pp. 33-34).

The topic of energy transportation infrastructure appears in the introductory chapter, beginning with brief descriptions of three natural gas pipeline projects, two of which connect supply from Myanmar to Thailand (the Yadana pipeline) and China (the Shwe project), and a third that connects supplies in Thailand to Malaysia (Thai-Malaysia project). Here the reader also finds mention of electricity production associated with seven proposed hydrodams for exporting electricity from Myanmar to Thailand. While discussion of these projects remains limited against an insider’s description of political-economics and policy, they nevertheless constitute a backdrop for the activist interviews from which Simpson builds his model of emancipatory environmental governance.

Simpson’s concept of governance is shaped by three features: First, environmental campaigns are structured through the level of authoritarianism of the political regimes under which activists operate, affecting local and transnational activism differently. Second, such activism coalesces around attempts to improve the daily lives of local communities, suggesting that environmentalism under authoritarian regimes is associated with providing basic human rights rather than environmental sustainability more broadly. Thus, and third, while environmental activism may have its roots in affluent democratic societies, its particular form, once transferred to an authoritarian society, is malleable under national contexts that are not responsive to the liberal order. In the present example, employing a classical typology of environmentalism founded in liberal democracy (“four pillars of green politics,” p. 38), Simpson identifies newly relevant meanings in Myanmar, as suggested when he points out that ecological sustainability (one of the four pillars) focuses more on poverty and food security.  That is, Simpson identifies a greater weight Myanmar  activist communities place on the effects on “migratory fish catches following the building of dams, than [the] predictions of distant climate change” in the global North (p. 39).

With Simpson’s primary focus on the character of social movements, I admit to some confusion over “energy” as the primary term in the book title. Chapter four, on local activism, for example, does discuss the pipeline and dam projects. Nevertheless, the level of detail is too general to understand how the specifics of project development emerge as untenable and thus related to specific forms of local resistance. The following sentence provides an example of contact points between energy projects and local communities that I consider vague: Public hearings for major development projects in Thailand were introduced…[with] only a limited technical hearing…[and with] local issues inadequately considered.” (p. 97) What I find missing here is an empirical description of how a technical hearing becomes meaningfully “limited”, or how issues become meaningfully “local” so that an understanding of “inadequate” can arise and thus lead to activism. Perhaps it is the passive construction of the prose throughout that gives me the feeling that details are reported rather than demonstrated, and thus, Simpson does not offer a sense of urgency over how energy development can be linked up through whatever means to emancipatory action.

One notable point that Simpson stresses, and which deserves special attention in energy studies is the disproportionate relationship between the rise of supranational governmental bodies aimed toward stewarding the local environment on one hand, and the limited number of local and transnational governmental efforts aimed at managing global energy on the other. It seems that while regulating the global environment is institutionally political, global energy remains institutionally financial.  Much more could be done with this insight.

Arthur Mason, Rice University

Simpson, Adam. 2014. Energy, Governance and Security in Thailand and Myanmar (Burma): A Critical Approach to Environmental Politics in the South. Ashgate.

Read More at Routledge


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