‘Heated’ Debate Again Stymies New Mining Law

By Nyein Nyein 4 June 2015

Efforts to pass a controversial bill updating Burma’s 1994 Mining Law have been postponed once again, after debate on the legislation turned “heated” this week amid rumors that a fight between two lawmakers took place on the floor of Parliament.

Deliberations on the Mining Law amendment bill, which aims to boost the industry’s appeal to both local private enterprises and foreign investors, were also suspended in November 2014, after lawmakers could not settle disputes at the time.

Hla Swe, an Upper House lawmaker and chairman of that chamber’s Mining and Resources Affairs Committee, said the decision to postpone discussion of the bill was made by the Union Parliament speaker, Shwe Mann.

According to lawmakers, the speaker said the bill would be debated again after Parliament discusses amending Schedule Two of the Constitution’s General Provisions chapter, which relates to resource- and power-sharing between the Union government and regional legislatures.

Phone Myint Aung, an independent lawmaker from the Upper House, told The Irrawaddy that “the speaker warned that the lawmakers have been discussing the issue without discipline.”

The amendment bill on mining has languished in Parliament since a version of the legislation was submitted in October 2013 by the Ministry of Mining. The Union Parliament’s Joint Bill Committee had drafted its own amendment bill, and Shwe Mann instructed lawmakers to merge the two pieces of legislation.

Disagreements emerged, according to Hla Swe, pitting Lower House lawmakers and their militarily appointed counterparts against Upper House parliamentarians.

Upper House lawmakers say the amended bill would benefit small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) by allowing them to enter into joint ventures with foreign firms. When the legislation was brought before the Union Parliament this week, however, opposition to that provision, Article 7(c), from Lower House lawmakers and military MPs made clear that the bill did not have the support needed for passage.

Lawmakers against this change want to stick with the framework of the existing Mining Law, which only allows foreign firms to enter into joint ventures with large local companies.

“The Upper House’s move is to enhance the private SME sector,” said Phone Myint Aung, highlighting the fact that the industry has been dominated for decades by cronies and companies with ties to the military.

Hla Swe told The Irrawaddy that progress had been made in bridging differences over the bill, but not enough to bring it to a vote.

“We had discussed some of the 21 disputed points the other day, but did not continue yesterday [Wednesday],” he said. “If we have to agree on every article, it would be no different to the current Mining Law of 1994. It could not be called an amendment bill. We have agreed on two-thirds of the changes [about 60 articles] that we had in the previous drafts.”

Another important clause in the amendment bill is Article 6, which suggests the formation of a Regional Mining Site Scrutinizing Team for each of Burma’s states and divisions—a proposal endorsed by the Union government—that would have authority to decide which companies receive mining concessions.

“It would help a lot both in terms of taxation and the local businesses’ development,” said Hla Swe.

The current law requires a company to apply with an official from the Department of Mines, under the Ministry of Mining.

Hla Swe said Parliament’s Joint Bill Committee was almost evenly split over the changes, with its members split seven and seven on whether to support them and the chairman tipping the balance in favor.

The suspension of parliamentary debate came as rumors swirled on social media that a physical altercation on Tuesday between two lawmakers, one from each legislative chamber, may have been the “lack of discipline” referenced by the speaker.

Lawmakers who The Irrawaddy spoke to on Thursday declined to discuss the rumors, and a recent ban on media in the parliamentary chamber made the claims difficult to verify.

Hla Swe would say only that the debate was “heated.”

The mining amendment bill has faced criticism because Upper House lawmaker Nay Win Tun, who serves as a member of the Mining and Resources Affairs Committee, is also the chairman of Ruby Dragon Mining, but Hla Swe rebuffed suggestions that a conflict of interest might exist.

“Even though he is from a powerful company, he considers how to help the small- and medium-scale workers,” he said.