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

Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2014. Pp. xvii, 251; figures, tables, list of acronyms, notes, list of affiliations of interviewees, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Su-Ann Oh.

This book is a timely addition to scholarship about environmental activism, and activism in general in Myanmar and Thailand. Centred on the attempts of environmentalists to improve human and environmental security for local communities, it provides a critical analysis of the nexus of energy, security, state, private sector and civil society in these two countries. Moreover, given the changing political climes of Myanmar and Thailand, and the high stakes of energy production in this region, the book offers a solid background to and analysis of the nature and limits of local and transnational political organisation.

The book has a two-fold aim: to develop a model of “activist environmental governance” that builds upon and refines past work on environmental activism, and to “develop the criteria for a model of both critical energy and environmental security that challenges the more traditional security studies approaches” (p. 9).

In pursuit of the first aim, the author builds his case by critiquing the literature on environmental governance and movements, particularly the model created by Timothy Doyle and Brian Doherty. Simpson argues that the current model of dividing environmental organisations into those that are emancipatory groups (EGs) and those that are part of an environmental governance state (EGS) is too narrow in its conception of governance, i.e., that governance relates only to formal state mechanisms. This is a pertinent observation. He therefore proposes that the EGs be renamed “environmental governance groups” to reflect the myriad ways in which environmental groups may contribute to environmental governance.

The second point on which Simpson disagrees with the Doyle and Doherty model concerns the loose definitions of the term “emancipatory”. He argues that environmental organisations are emancipatory if they adhere to the four pillars of green politics espoused by the German Greens in 1980: participatory democracy, ecological sustainability, social justice and nonviolence. In this, he is to be commended for setting out clearly his definition of “emancipatory”. While it is conceivable that there are other ways of defining “emancipatory” in regard to organisations working on environmental issues, this definition appears to be a sound basis for Simpson’s purposes.

The final prong of his critique relates to the dualist nature of the model proposed by Doyle and Doherty. He proposes an additional category, “compromise governance groups”, organisations that are a compromise between emancipatory aims and conservative structures. In order to substantiate his claims, he describes and analyses his data using several axes: local v. transnational, process v. outcome and North v. South. This is a valuable exercise: Simpson rightly points out that there is a gap in the literature on environmental organisations and their activities in the South, thereby limiting the scope of analysis of environmental activism to the organisations and campaigns that are carried out in the North.

It is noteworthy that Simpson’s research on his case studies spanned a significant period of time–the mid-1990s to 2006 for Thailand and to 2011 for Myanmar–and that it is comparative, thus providing depth and breadth to his analysis. To the author’s credit, the work was conducted in two countries, and it is based on four transnational energy projects. These are the Yadana Gas Pipeline running through Myanmar and Thailand; the Thai-Malaysian Gas Pipeline; the Shwe Gas Pipeline passing through India, China and Myanmar; and the Salween Dams on the river between Thailand and Myanmar. Focussed on the strategies, tactics, and philosophies of environmental organisations, the work is also multiscalar in its examination of individuals, groups, NGOs and coalitions.

Simpson’s use and analysis of his extensive material provide rich insights that offer a nuanced, refined and subtle approach to conceptualising environmental activism. The case that he makes for how democracy and authoritarianism determine the nature of environmental politics is competently handled in Chapter 3. While cognisant of the flaws of Steven Levitysky’s and Lucan Way’s model of competitive authoritarianism, he assesses the competitive and authoritarian aspects of the regimes in both Myanmar and Thailand in order to compare the nature of environmental activism undertaken under different political regimes.

Several things stand out in this chapter. First, Simpson shows that the political regimes and business-government power that prevail in these two countries determine the scope and form of environmental (and other forms of) activism. The comparative approach helps him tease out the nuances in political power, the way it is shared and the way that environmental activism is undertaken differently under the constraints imposed by the Thai and Myanmar political regimes. As there is some political space for activism in Thailand, it has focussed on local campaigns. However, it is still limited by the political environment. On the other hand, in authoritarian Myanmar, the only space available for environmental activism has been outside the country, most particularly on its borders and under the leadership of what Simpson calls an “activist diaspora”. It is surprising that this correlation has not drawn scholarly attention before, and it is commendable that Simpson has picked up on it.

He expands on this point in the conclusion of the book, drawing on the analysis of local and transnational environmental activism in Chapters 4-6, to develop a model showing that the level of authoritarianism (Table 7.2 on p.187) affects the level of local and transnational activism. Put simply, the more authoritarian the regime, the lower the level of local activism and the higher the level of transnational activism. Here, I would like to pose two questions. First, is it possible to accept this as a credible model, given that it is based on two countries and four case studies? I believe that this model would be more tenable if other countries or case studies from the literature had been added or, if not available, suggested by the author. Second, in the same table, it appears that hybrid regimes with low levels of authoritarianism have low adverse impact on environmental insecurity, and vice versa for regimes with high levels of authoritarianism. While this may be the case for the two countries studied, is it the case across the board?

Another strength of this book is its definition and conceptualisation of “activist diaspora”–a concept that is particularly useful for the Thai-Myanmar border, one teeming with activists, organisations and communities that fled the Myanmar regime. I agree with Simpson’s assertion that the role of exile movements remains understudied. While I am unconvinced by his declaration that the defining characteristic of an “activist diaspora” is “multi ethnic collaboration by exiled activists” (p. 89), I nevertheless believe that this concept is valuable. It may be useful in developing further scholarship on activism on the Thai-Burmese border and elsewhere.

The study of local activism in Chapter 4 fleshes out the model of “activist environmental governance” in that it highlights “the significance of local conditions in encouraging the extent and types of local activism within the broader transnational environmental disputes” (p. 93). In considering “local living conditions, local cultural or religious influences, local business interests and authoritarian governance” (p. 93), Simpson provides data about the content – human rights, women’s issues – and the process – the co-optation of religious and cultural philosophies and practices, nonviolence – to underscore what “emancipatory” means in the model of activism developed. The richness of the data is evident; it provides the basis for the analysis of the types of campaigns and activities that the environmental activists under study have undertaken. Having said that, the sociologist in me would have appreciated more ethnographic detail and critical analysis of the cultural discourses and practices espoused by these activists.

With regard to the philosophy of nonviolence, it seems that the connections that the activists had with armed groups were glossed over. I agree that in this region, it is practical, pragmatic and inevitable that these links are made. However, more data on the thoughts of the activists with regard to this issue would strengthen the work, particularly since nonviolence is one of the pillars of the definition of “emanacipatory” embraced by Simpson.

Notwithstanding this concern, in examining the local context and the campaigns’ response to it, Simpson shows how environmental (and presumably other) activists in the South must, because of their precarious positions, link human rights to environmental rights, a feature that does not figure in the work of environmental activists in the North. Simpson’s focus on the strategies and tactics of activists rather than on the management of environmental issues by governments or the for-profit sector allows him successfully to develop his model.

In Chapters 5 and 6, the author’s detailed examination of the origins, aims, structure and activities of a transnational organisation, Earth Rights International, and the transnational campaigns undertaken in the four projects is laudable. What is particularly interesting is the transformative nature of environmental activism; while the organisations might not have achieved their outcomes, the process of adhering to the four green pillars, of learning and self-transformation, of participatory democracy and of setting up networks and coalitions was in itself seen in a positive light by the respondents. While I would have liked a more fine-grained account of this process, I appreciate that studying it has enabled the author to derive a typology of governance groups in relation to their structures and their activities: “emancipatory governance groups” and “compromise governance groups”. The latter have conservative structures but broadly adhere to the green pillars in their aims and activities.

How useful is this “emancipatory governance groups” model? By analysing the details and processes at work in environmental organisations in Thailand and Myanmar, Simpson has been able to present a much more nuanced model than the one proposed by Doyle and Doherty. However, more studies of a similar bent (local/transnational, North/South, process/outcome) need to be conducted before the model is proven sound.

The second aim of the book – to “develop the criteria for a model of both critical energy and environmental security that challenges the more traditional security studies approaches” (p. 9) is drawn from the case study analysis. The author outlines four broad criteria that he believes can be generalised to develop a critical environmental security framework. He believes that this framework can “be deployed in the exercise of emancipatory activist environmental governance” (p. 192). First, “energy security should be considered as a fundamental and integral component of critical environmental security rather than being addressed as either an isolated concern or simply part of national economic or military security” (p. 192). Second, “the referent object of energy security shifts away from the state in the North to marginalised individuals and communities in the South” (p. 192). Third, “a critical energy security analysis focuses on renewable, low carbon and decentralised energy sources rather than centralised fossil fuel, nuclear and large-scale hydro technologies, with energy production owned or controlled by local communities” (p. 194). Fourth, “the pursuit of energy security should not adversely affect other aspects of environmental security and . . . total environmental security should therefore be improved” (p. 195).

Simpson asserts that these criteria can be applied to provide a critical security perspective for emancipatory actors engaging in activist environmental governance. These are valid criteria, and are strongly rooted in the evidence presented by the author. Moreover, they encompass energy, environment and security and provide guidance on energy production, particularly in the South. This has direct bearing on the local communities in these two countries. Most of Myanmar’s revenue is derived from the exploitation of natural resources, and its neighbours China and Thailand are its principal energy consumers. Energy, environment and security will continue to dominate the political and economic scene in these two (and other) countries, and the struggle amongst the different stakeholders will continue to make newspaper headlines. This book makes valid and salient contributions to this struggle.

Su-Ann Oh is Visiting Research Fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.