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Rise of Malaysia's Green lobby
Publication Date : 08-10-2012
In April last year, they were just a handful of professionals, retired civil servants and businessmen living in Kuantan, Pahang, who were concerned about the environmental impact of a rare-earth mining plant being built 25km away.
Ten months later, the civilians, joining hands with the Himpunan Hijau environmental group, mobilised thousands of people to protest against the operations of Lynas Corp, an Australian mining company.
Lynas had been given the green light by the Malaysian government to mine and process rare earths, but residents were worried about the effects on their health, because rare-earth mining produces radioactive waste.
"We were not trained as activists, but we have volunteered ourselves to speak out against a serious environmental issue," said Tan Bun Teet, a retired teacher who became the leader of the Kuantan group, which called itself Save Malaysia Stop Lynas.
Since the anti-Lynas protests, other rallies, led by Himpunan Hijau, have been staged against other development projects, including a gold mine in Bukit Koman, also in Pahang, and a petrochemical project in Pengerang, Johor.
Political analysts say the green movement is making the Malaysian government nervous, as the activists have been able to successfully block or delay some of the development projects recently.
"What the government is worried about is that such protests will spook foreign investors," said political analyst James Chin of the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash University Malaysia.
"Investors are thinking twice about putting capital in Malaysia, especially in 'dirty' industries, as there is now a new kind of risk they have to take that was unheard of previously."
In February, some 15,000 protesters, including residents, non-governmental organisation members and opposition party members, turned up at the Kuantan rally organised by Save Malaysia Stop Lynas and Himpunan Hijau to put pressure on the government to stop Lynas' operations.
The US$800 million rare-earth plant has been ready to start operations since May, but the Atomic Energy Licensing Board, a government agency, did not issue it a temporary operating licence until last month.
Save Malaysia Stop Lynas appealed against the issuing of the licence, and a Kuantan court last Thursday agreed to postpone the hearing until Wednesday.
Civilians are increasingly becoming active participants in the green movement.
"The people want to exercise their responsibility as civilians, and that is why they are willing to stand under the scorching sun for hours during the demonstrations," said Wong Tack, chairman of Himpunan Hijau. "I have not seen such spirit shown by the people in a very long time."
Himpunan Hijau, formed last year, has been instrumental in organising demonstrations against major development projects that have an impact on the country's environment and the people's livelihoods.
The green movement in Malaysia has seen a resurgence, with environmental issues becoming a strong rallying point that is making the government unpopular ahead of a general election that must be called by April next year.
"These groups are successful in rallying support from the masses because they are championing causes that touch the heart of society, such as health concerns and the environment," Chin said.
The last big rally was in 1987, when 10,000 people protested to demand the shutdown of a rare-earth factory in Bukit Merah, Perak, after studies showed that radioactive levels in the town were significantly higher and were believed to have resulted in the higher occurrence of cancer among residents there.
Dr Ooi Kee Beng, a political analyst at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, noted that rising support for and focus on environmental issues can be attributed to factors such as wider Internet access, increasing urbanisation among the Malay population, higher education, regionalism as well as the rise of Asian economies.
"Political engagement as part and parcel of mature citizenhood has become undeniable," he said. "It puts huge pressure on the political leadership and the bureaucracy to perform in rational ways."
The government, however, has accused the green movement of aligning with the opposition.
It claimed Himpunan Hijau had paid people to turn up at the rally in Pengerang late last month.
Prof Chin noted that some rallies had been largely hijacked by the opposition. "A lot of these groups and their rallies are backed and reinforced by the opposition, automatically making the green movement anti-establishment."
But Wong, who managed to stop the construction of a coal- fired power plant in Sabah last year, dismissed the allegations.
"Ultimately, these are people movements," he said. "People are frustrated and we happen to come in at the right time to respond to society's call."