Allegations of Development Abuses Rife Across Burma

By Charlie Campbell 12 December 2012

In the wake of last month’s brutal crackdown on anti-copper mine protesters in Sagaing Division that received global attention, even more community groups have emerged to allege massive environmental and social devastation from various government-led development projects.

Severe health and ecological concerns as well as land grabs, forced labor and related human rights abuses have been independently reported in diverse areas of Burma where large-scale industry or construction has been taking place.

The Molo Women Mining Watch Network released its “Lost Paradise” report on Tuesday that details how hundreds of mine tunnels spanning 3,000 acres in southern Burma have caused lethal landslides, water pollution and deforestation impacting around 4,500 indigenous villagers.

“Dangerous mines must be shut down immediately,” said Molo spokeswoman Naw Ah Mu. “Without legal safeguards ensuring protection and benefit for local people, we don’t want any more mining in our lands.”

Workers at the Mawchi mines in Karenni State commonly suffer from respiratory disease and arthritis caused by unhealthy working conditions, dust and frequent use of explosives, claims the report. Women mainly toil with bare hands and feet collecting and washing tin nuggets in the mine. Working hours are from 7 am to 5 pm for which employees earn around 5,000 kyat (US $6) per day.

“I am not sure if it was from the mining, but a woman who worked in the mines gave birth to triplets and no child survived. Many children die from diarrhea and typhoid,” a local man from Lokharlo Village was quoted by Molo.

The Mawchi mines have been in operation since British colonial times and were once the world’s main source of tungsten. Now the project is monopolized by the Kayah State Mining Company Ltd, the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL) and the Ministry of Mining-2.

The Molo Network—formed by members of the Karenni Women’s Organization, Karenni Social Welfare and Development Centre and Karenni Evergreen Organization—also documents contaminated runoff damaging farmland and polluting drinking water, as well as local people being forced to serve as Burma Army porters for the project.

Similarly, reports of local people suffering serious health problems near a government-backed mining project in Sagaing Division have also reached The Irrawaddy. Pollution from a copper mine run by China’s Yangtze Copper Ltd with UMEHL at the Kyay Sin Mountain has been linked with debilitating symptoms in nearby Kankon Village.

“Smoke spreads across the sky from the mine all day. At first my daughter could see like other kids, but last month she could only see a little and now her sight is even worse,” said a local woman. “I don’t want other children to suffer the same as my child does.”

Environmental devastation to Kyay Sin and nearby Sabae mountains was one of the main driving forces behind recent anti-copper mine protests at the Letpadaung mountain range, also in Sagaing Division, that were brutally crushed by a pre-dawn raid on Nov. 29 in which around 100 monks were badly burned.

Both Wan Bao Company, which operates the Letpadaung project, and Yangtze Copper Ltd are subsidiaries of China’s largest weapons manufacturer Norinco, which reportedly sold heavy artillery to Burma’s former ruling military junta government before signing the joint venture deals.

Another local mother in Kankon Village told The Irrawaddy that her son suffers from acidic fumes billowing from the mining plant. Sulfur dioxide gas is a common byproduct from intensive copper extraction.

“When he was born, there was no defect—he could cry, shout, breastfeed and everything,” she said. “But now he is suffering from some disease. He is like a dead body and not conscious now. I’m living nearest to that acid plant. We told the plant supervisor that our village is suffering various kinds of diseases but they pretend not to hear our words.”

Meanwhile, the Students and Youth Congress of Burma and Nationalities Youth Forum (NY-Forum) released their joint “Excluded: Burma’s Ethnic Nationalities on the Margins of Democracy and Development” report on Wednesday that documents the experiences of ethnic people who are forced to bear the brunt of Burmese megaprojects.

The study is based upon 261 interviews conducted in seven states and one division involving 10 ethnic groups and nine development projects. These include the Shwe Gas pipeline—stretching from Arakan State to China’s southwestern Yunnan Province—and the Dawei deep-sea port in southernmost Burma.

“Our evidence shows that every development project surveyed had some incidences of human rights abuses including forced evictions, land confiscations and forced labor,” said Moe Hlaing, a central committee member of NY-Forum.

The report found that almost 90 percent of those surveyed did not receive any information about the development project in their area before it began, less than one percent said a public forum was held for the local community while almost half remained unsure whether their respective project was safe.

Thet Swe Aye contributed to this report from Monywa, Sagaing Division.