YANGON—A mining company in Kachin State detained and assaulted two journalists for reporting local residents’ concerns over a controversial Chinese tissue-culture banana plantation in Waimaw Township, the local newspaper that employs the journalists reported. Local residents accuse the banana plantation operator of land grabbing and causing environmental damage.
Seng Mai, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Myitkyina Journal, a local independent weekly, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that employees of Tha Khin Sit Mining and Import and Export Company forced two reporters from the Journal’s office to go with them to the company’s compound on Tuesday morning. They were detained for more than two hours and threatened with repercussions if they did not remove the story from the website.
“The two reporters were detained in separate rooms in the compound. One of the company employees slapped a woman reporter’s face with [a copy of] our journal,” Seng Mai said.
She said, “The other [male] reporter was forced to do 300 sit-ups as punishment. He can barely walk right now,” the editor added.
The two reporters were only released after the journal contacted Waimaw Township police station, who sent police officers to surround the company.
The Myitkyina Journal published a story on Monday about local residents’ plan to stage a protest at a site being cleared to make way for a banana plantation in Mandaung village in Waimaw Township by two companies including Tha Khin Sit. According to Myanmar TradeNet, the company is a joint venture between a local Kachin business and a Chinese partner. It is active in mining, import-export and tissue-culture banana plantations. Registration data from the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration shows the company’s three directors are ethnic Kachin.
Seng Mai said the Myitkyina Journal plans to open a case against company at the police station for detaining and assaulting the reporters.
For more than two years, China-backed banana plantations have been facing a backlash from local residents in Kachin State, where operators are accused of grabbing land rented from local authorities. As the banana plantations expand, villagers displaced by fighting and living in IDP camps are increasingly concerned their land may be occupied, and that they will not be able to farm when they return home.
There are more than 27,000 acres planted with tissue-culture bananas in Waimaw Township, with most of the plantations being operated by Chinese companies, according to the state’s Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Ministry. Statewide, there are more than 60,000 acres of banana plantations.
Lagam Gyung Ze, a Kachin lawmaker from Waimaw Township, told The Irrawaddy that the majority of the Chinese tissue-culture banana plantations in the township are owned by Chinese companies. However, most of the companies are registered under the names of local businesspeople.
According to a 2017 environmental study by the Lisu Civil Society Organization, Chinese companies have been planting tissue culture bananas since 2012 in Kachin State’s Special Region 1, which is under the control of the government-allied New Democratic Army-Kachin militia. It said the plantations have been gradually expanding in three townships: Bhamo, Shwegu and Waimaw Township.
According to the study, the companies are using insecticides, weed killers and fertilizers and disposing of them carelessly. This has led to the pollution of water supplies in these areas, in turn causing soil damage and killing fish and livestock.
The Myitkyina Journal has been covering the social and environmental impacts of the plantations for a long time. Seng Mai said, “Our reports have mainly focused on the suffering the plantations are causing local residents. Whenever we try to expose information about the plantations, I have found there is no transparency, even in the state Parliament.”
She added, “Some lawmakers say the banana plantations are illegal, but others say the state government receives taxes [from them].”
An officer at the Waimaw Police Station declined The Irrawaddy’s requests for comment on the Myitkyina Journal case. The Irrawaddy could not reach Tha Khin Sit company, as its phone was turned off.
According to Chapter 3 of the Media Law, “news media workers shall have the right to freely criticize, point out or recommend operating procedures of the legislative [branch], executive and judiciary in conformity with the Constitution, to investigate, publish and broadcast information and related opinions to which every citizen is entitled in accordance with rules and regulations, to reveal issues relating to rights and privileges lost by the citizen.”
Chapter 8 states that if any responsibilities or ethics are considered to be breached by a news media worker, the aggrieved department, organization or individual shall have the right to complain to the Myanmar Press Council first. The council can resolve the problem by meeting with the two parties and seeking a compromise between them. If the two parties cannot work out a compromise agreement, or the arguments cannot be settled, the complainant or aggrieved party can prosecute the other party at the relevant court under applicable laws, it states.