Coal mining operations conducted by the Ngwe Yi Pale Company in Shan State’s Hsipaw Township have poisoned farmland and severely impacted the lives of more than 3,000 local villagers according to a new report released last week by a group representing local farmers affected by the mines. The company, which began mining in the Nam Ma village tract area in 2004, has so far ignored calls from local residents to halt the mining and has actually expanded considerably in recent years.
Strong opposition from the local community was apparent last month when 600 villagers took part in a prayer service held on June 23 at the Ho Na Pa forest area, in which participants blessed the forest and called for an end to coal mining in the area.
Ngwe Yi Pale is currently operating two mining sites in the Nam Ma area, using both underground tunnels and open pit practices, with the biggest share of the mining taking place near Na Koon village. A third mine at Pieng Hsai village ceased operations in 2015 and has now filled with water.
According to a press release accompanying the publishing of the report by the Nam Ma Shan Farmers group, villagers have in recent weeks noticed large cracks in the ground and sinkholes emerging close to the mining operations.
The report notes that water quality in the area has declined since the mining began.
Water from the mining operations is being dumped into Nam Ma stream, which is used by local villagers for irrigation; as a result the stream has “become black.” A pump system set up by the firm purportedly to provide water for local farmers near the abandoned Pieng Hsai mine is problematic because the water pumped from the site is polluted and “smells like engine oil.” The report claims that farmers using the dirty water from Pieng Hsai have seen their yield per field go down by about a third.
A new problem also appears to have emerged last month. One day after the prayer service was held, large amounts of smoke began billowing out of one of the mining tunnels in Na Koon. The source appeared to be an underground coal fire, according to photos published alongside the report. Coal mining operations can trigger such fires but once a coal seam fire begins it can last for months or years, with some such fires releasing huge amounts of toxic smoke for decades after a mine’s operations have finished.
The 36-page report notes that the Ngwe Yi Pale Company received a 10-year permit in August 2010 to dig for coal in the Nam Ma area, in a joint venture with Myanmar’s state-owned Mining Enterprise No 3. The Ngwe Yi Pale Company firm owns a 70 percent stake in the project with the state-owned entity holding the remaining 30 percent. The concession area is 11.3 square kilometers in size, but, according to the report, two of the mining sites that the firm operated “appear to be outside the concession area.”
The Ngwe Yi Pale Company, which also operates sugar cane plantations and sugar cane processing facilities, has also come under fire for accusations of using forced labor. A detailed expose by Myanmar Now released last year showed that the firm was using unpaid prison labor on its 800-acre sugarcane plantation in Shan State’s Nawnghkio Township as part of a joint venture agreement Ngwe Ye Pale has with prison authorities.
The company’s coal mining activities appear to be equally as controversial as their sugar operations. Heavy fighting in May of last year in the Nam Ma area saw the army use airstrikes and shelling to drive out the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP), an armed group which has had a presence in the area for many years. The move was, according to the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF), connected with the company’s expansion plans and the desire to rid the area of the SSPP. “There is thus no doubt that a main aim of the offensive was to safeguard the mining operations. The Myanmar Army and their militia have now secured control of areas around the mines, including coal transport routes,” said SHRF in a report released last year.
According to the SHRF, the fighting drove more than 1,000 villagers from the area. The group reported at least two civilians were killed by the army during the clashes, including a villager who SHRF alleges was shot while driving a motorbike and then beaten to death. SHRF also alleges that other villagers were arbitrarily arrested and abused during an army sweep of the area.
Following the fighting last year, the army’s Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) 325 built a base at Kho Nang Pha, which was previously held by the SSPP. According to the SHRF, about 100 army troops together with their allies from the Wan Pang militia, a group that emerged from Shan warlord Khun Sa’s Mong Taii Army (MTA), now patrol much of the area that was previously held by the SSPP.
The SSPP, who in 1989 signed a ceasefire agreement with the central government, have not signed the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) and have been on the receiving of repeated attacks from military troops in recent years. The group, which is also known as the Shan State Army-North, is a member of the United Nationalities Federal Council and also closely aligned with other northern armed groups and part of the newly emerged Northern Alliance.
Earlier this year, Nam Ma village tract secretary Lung Jarm Phe was shot and killed near his home. The February 26 killing remains unexplained but in the words of SHRF has “instilled fear among local villagers.”