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

 

Adam Simpson, 2017. Energy, Governance and Security in Thailand and Myanmar (Burma): A Critical Approach to Environmental Politics in the South, NIAS Press

By Scott Edwards

With various megaprojects announced in the past year in Southeast Asia, critically analysing their impact and governance is increasingly important. Adam Simpson, through this book on emancipatory environmental movements and contributions they make to governance, contributes significantly to debates concerning resource extraction and the centrality of the state in energy security, as well as the governance of (transnational) projects undertaken in its name. Focusing primarily on emancipatory social movements and activism, Simpson undertakes a multi-level multi-scalar analysis of these movements and introduces a typology of environmental governance through an analysis of energy projects in Thailand and Myanmar - states with differing domestic spaces for activism.

The theoretical question and argument driving the book, laid out in Chapter 1, is how emancipatory environmental groups “can play an important informal role in communicating community concerns to the governments” (p.1), and “can play a crucial role in the … environmental governance of transnational energy projects” (p. 21).  As he persuasively argues, it is often marginalized populations that face environmental insecurity in the South, “resulting from the symbiotic interests of large business interests and the most powerful political actors” (p. 196), which leads to the “activist environmental governance of transnational energy projects” (p.196) – but that this governance faces many obstacles.

In order to analyse their potential role, he first identifies a typology of three types of activist environmental governance - emancipatory governance groups (EGGs), compromise governance groups (CGGs), and the environmental governance state (EGS) – in Chapter 2. Of significance, these vary in degrees of emancipatory (or conversely conservative) objectives. This emancipatory focus by Simpson builds on Doyle and Doherty (2006), but he argues their conceptualisation “severely limits the constructive role of emancipatory environment groups and movements” (p. 26). Instead, in Simpson’s book, EGGs are assessed through looking at their organisational structure, which differ from CGGs and the EGS as they are consensus-based and horizontal informal networks who “share a distinctive collective identity” (p. 33). Their aims are differentiated using four core pillars of green politics as norms – “participatory democracy, ecological sustainability, social justice, and nonviolence (p. 21)” – with a focus on conflictual activities and public protest. These EGGs are of greater utility in achieving environmental security for marginalised groups that Simpson focuses on, due to their ability to mobilise popular support based on this organisational structure and their emancipatory objectives.

These typologies are well-presented and laid out, and are also operationalised persuasively in the empirical chapters following. Simpson focuses on 4 projects, the SHWE Gas Pipeline and Salween Dams in Myanmar, and the Yadana Gas Pipeline and Thai-Malaysian Gas Pipeline in Thailand, in an extremely detailed comparable analysis. Of significance, a common argument is threaded throughout these chapters that “a distinctive relationship [exists] between the level of authoritarian governance and the predominance of local or transnational activism under hybrid or authoritarian regimes” (p. 186).

This is initially laid out in Chapter 3, where the (changing) political situations in which environmental insecurity occurs and activism spaces operate (or fail to do so) are discussed in relation to Thailand and Myanmar during different eras. Primarily using Levitsky and Way’s (2010) measurements of electoral arena, legislature, judiciary and media, as well as a focus on the security and enforcement sector, Simpson concludes that Thailand has allowed some space for local activism, while Myanmar has not. Chapter 4 analyses local activism and emancipatory governance in these contexts. Related to the previous chapter, he argues that local activism in Myanmar was “extremely limited” (p. 94) due to threat of imprisonment and worse. In contrast, local activism in Thailand has space for protest and engagement (though not much more influence than this). This establishes the transnational as a particular interest in the rest of the book, as an “activist diaspora” (p. 154) that does not have the space for engagement in Myanmar becomes transnational or operates around the borderlands (where many of the marginalised affected by the projects are also located). Chapter 5 explores the bridge between local and transnational through the EarthRights International (ERI) case study. Simpson chooses ERI as it is not only a prominent transnational NGO in the region, but, as he describes effectively, it is also an NGO that was primarily founded upon personal networks between those located in the area and in the North. Chapter 6 widens the analysis of transnational campaigns using the previously mentioned projects. Simpson highlights well in this chapter the different factors that allow for EGGs to form from transnational campaigns and organisations, as well as the factors that prove to be obstacles.

Simpson concludes that EGGs play a significant role in all of its forms by pointing out various achievements at each stage. The strengthening of Environmental Impact Assessment processes in Thailand, for example, are argued to be a result of local activism. For the transnational, movements’ ability to emphasise emancipatory values and processes, or capture the interest of international governments, are seen as the primary indicators of success. This is not to say that he does not recognise the shortcomings of EGCs in their current form in the Thailand and Myanmar cases. He argues that activists had “some impact in the decision-making processes of the Myanmar government” (p.181), and pursued “environmental governance by engaging in sensitive, localised and interactive activities” (p.189) such as knowledge distribution, collaboration and “bolstering the confidence and skills, including English language proficiency, of exiles” (p.89) show the utility of EGCs in influencing the democratic process. However, there is also a recognition that they have been unable to fulfil wide-reaching objectives in regard to establishing actual emancipatory governance.

One highlight of the book is the excellent use of fieldwork throughout, especially as much of it was undertaken in relatively difficult circumstances across a number of countries. Simpson has engaged in, and utilised, a large amount of interviews which not only substantiate his claims and arguments, but also offer fascinating insights into how movements operate in extremely difficult contexts. Simpson, therefore, is able to highlight the agency of these actors and shed light on their voices and struggles. This works well in a book that brilliantly moves the focus away from the state in order to demonstrate and argue for the agency of other, often marginalised, groups who are affected by a state’s pursuit of energy security and the projects undertaken in its name.

Overall, Simpson has produced an insightful and rigorous book, which should be worthy of interest for any scholars of environmental activism and energy security. Simpson’s conclusions and model should prove particularly useful in future, offering a solid basis for exploring future projects in a region which shows no signs of slowing down its pursuit of (state-dominated) energy security.

References

Doherty, B., and Doyle, T., 2006. 'Beyond borders: Transnational politics, social movements and modern environmentalisms', Environmental Politics, vol. 15(5), 697-712

Levitsky, S., and Way, L.A., 2010. Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press