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Thai suit against Xayaburi electricity agreement to test "˜if ASEAN is for the people or just for business'

 
A fisherman holds his net on the banks of the Mekong River in Muang District, Nongkhai Province, Thailand in 2010. Thai opponents of the controversial Xayaburi dam in Laos say they will engage "˜all means' to stop the project, including elevating the case to the Southeast Asian regional body. Photo: Bloomberg

Thai opponents of a planned multi-billion dollar dam in Laos villagers and activists say they will engage "all means" to stop the project including elevating the case to the Southeast Asian regional body.

Thirty-seven villagers who represent the Thai People's Network of Eight Mekong Provinces on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against the state-run Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and several government agencies in the Administrative Court. The plaintiffs demanded that the court scrap an agreement under which EGAT will buy most of the power to be generated by the controversial US$3.8-billion Xayaburi dam in Laos.

"We haven't been informed that the NGO will file a lawsuit against EGAT," Bloomberg quoted EGAT's legal affairs bureau as saying. "However, in the event that we are sued by the NGO with respect to this matter, we are ready to make any clarification to the court."

Bloomberg said Thailand's constitution prohibits projects or activities that may harm the environment without public consultation, impact studies and opinions from independent organizations. It also gives people the right to sue state enterprises.

Cancellation of the power deal would spell doom for the Xayaburi project, as EGAT is its major client, said Teerapong Pomun, director of Living River Siam, one of the Thai environmental groups that have assisted the villagers with the lawsuit.

An independent Thai study has concluded that electricity from the Xayaburi dam is not needed to meet Thailand's demand for energy in the coming decades

Even if the court rejects the case, Pomun said the Thai villagers and environmental groups would "do all means to stop the dam, including closing Thai-Lao friendship bridges.

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"We will bring this issue up to the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] level. This lawsuit should be the first case to test ASEAN if ASEAN is for the people or just for business."

The lawsuit came on the heels of a public call from the same group of Thai villagers urging Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to reject the power-buying deal with Xayaburi late last month.

Laos, looking to become the "battery of Southeast Asia" by exporting the vast majority of its power, has promoted the 1,285-megawatt, 810-meter (2,600ft) Xayaburi dam project as a potential source of income and investment that will spur its $7.5 billion economy.

But experts warn that the project - one of 11 new dams planned on the lower reaches of the 4,900km-long (3,000mile-long) Mekong River - could cause untold environmental damage and spark a food security crisis in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Last December, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand agreed to shelve Laos's plans to go ahead with the Xayaburi project and take more time to study its impacts.

But just one month later, the Thai Energy Minister Arak Cholthanon confirmed that the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand and the Xayaburi project developer had signed an agreement in October 2011 to buy 95 percent of the electricity from the dam.

In April, the dam's developer, Ch. Karnchang Pcl (one of Thailand's leading construction companies) announced to the Thai Stock Exchange that they had signed a 52-billion baht ($1.7 billion) contract with Xayaburi Power, a Lao-Thai joint venture, to build the dam and that work on it had commenced in mid-March. Four Thai banks have already provided financial support for the Xayaburi dam.

Laotian Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong last month assured Hillary Clinton that the Xayaburi project would not proceed without approval from neighboring countries in the first visit to the landlocked country by a US Secretary of State in 57 years.

But media reports and environmental groups have said construction on the project is already underway with Lao officials acknowledging they have authorized "exploratory" and "preparation" work to go ahead.

Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia are bound by a 1995 Mekong treaty to hold inter-governmental consultations before building dams. But none has veto powers and Laos will have the final say, although considerable diplomatic pressure can be exerted on it.

Laos has sought to allay concerns of its neighbors by showing them the reports it commissioned from Compagnie Nationale du Rhôneand Finland-headquartered Pöyry in a bid to minimize the impacts of the Xayaburi dam. But environmental groups and experts have dismissed these reports as desktop studies that glossed over its transboundary and cumulative impacts.

Niwat Roykaew, the first Thai villager to join the lawsuit, said he was expecting the Thai court to bring justice to both the Mekong region and ASEAN.

"This [power] purchase agreement is illegal," Roykaew said.

"The governments have to protect their people, not the businessmen."

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