No Response, No Accountability for Tenasserim Coal Mine Damage

By Sean Gleeson 30 October 2015

RANGOON — Karen villagers say the massive toll on their community from the nearby Ban Chaung coal mining project has been ignored by the government, the ethnic armed group in control of the area and the companies involved in the venture.

Approved by the Ministry of Mines under the former military regime in March 2010, Mayflower Mining Enterprise Ltd. was initially allocated three land parcels in Dawei. A further three allotments were granted in March 2012, with the total size of the project spread over 2,100 acres of land in upland Tenasserim Division.

A report released on Friday by a consortium of local civil society groups alleged that Mayflower Mining had unlawfully brought in two Thai-based firms—East Star Company Ltd. And Thai Asset Mining Co. Ltd—to operate the mines and construct roads linking the Ban Chaung mines to the Dawei Special Economic Zone and a port 45 kilometers to the south in Thayetchaung Township.

Investment and mining laws require foreign firm to secure operational approval from both the Ministry of Mines and the Myanmar Investment Commission. Thant Zin, a representative of the Dawei Development Association, told a Friday press conference that there was no record of either East Star or Thai Asset Mining having approval to operate the Ban Chaung mines from either body, while Mayflower Mining appears to have no direct involvement in mining operations.

East Star commenced operations at Khon Chaung Gyi village in late 2011 and early 2012, destroying 60 acres of a cardamom plantation without informing or seeking consent from landowners, the report said. The company also seized land in nearby Kyaut Htoo village, setting up an operations camp close to a Burma Army base.

Naw Pe The Law, a spokeswoman for the Tarkapaw civil society group, said that if the project was granted permission to expand and encompass all six allotments, more than 20 villages and 330,000 people would be affected by land seizures or the environmental effects of the project.

“We are indigenous people but we were never informed these projects would occur,” she said. “We only found out when the mining started. Even though it started in 2011, there has been no environmental or social impact assessment done. Even though every villager is against it, the project continues, and there is no accountability for anyone.”

Despite being in its infancy, the Ban Chaung project has had a dramatic impact on the local environment since operations commenced. Villagers told civil society groups that East Star had dumped tailings into streams, while the nearby water table had acidified and killed local marine life. Mining dust and recurring coal fires—which East Star made cursory efforts to extinguish by covering waste piles with dirt—have led to an increase in respiratory illnesses, while others reported an outbreak of skin diseases.

The Buck Stops There

Registered in Bangkok and Rangoon in 2010, Mayflower Mining was founded by Kyaw Win, a close associate of former junta deputy Gen. Maung Aye who established his fortune in the timber trade in the early 1990s. Kyaw Win’s move into banking in 1994 saw the establishment of the Myanmar Mayflower Bank, which at its height was the third largest financial institution in the country before it was shuttered in 2005 following a money laundering investigation.

The Ban Chaung project area, around 50 kilometers from the Thai border, has long been under the de facto control of the 4th Brigade of the Karen National Union (KNU). Despite mining operations falling in the armed group’s control area, the KNU has regularly deflected accountability for the project.

Thant Zin of the Dawei Development Association told The Irrawaddy that villagers had attempted to petition the ethnic armed group at least five times to stop the project since 2013 without receiving a response. On some occasions, the KNU told villagers to seek redress from the Burmese government and the Ministry of Mines, who in turn referred the villagers back to the KNU.

In January 2014, the first secretary of the Mergui-Tavoy District KNU office attempted to order a temporary suspension of the 60 acres currently being mined. Operations continued as normal. Two months later, the district KNU office signed a contract with villagers stating that mining would not expand beyond its present operations. Protests continued, with a November 2014 local blockade of access roads built by East Star and Thai Asset eventually removed by the Karen National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the KNU.

Friday’s report on the Ban Chaung project called on the Burmese government to cease granting mining approvals in ethnic areas without the consent of the local community and for the KNU to end its support for local mining operations.

‘Left in the Lurch’

Efforts to enshrine community protections as a precondition of mining projects have been glacial.

An attempt to update the junta-era 1994 Mining Law, which would modernize the rules under which foreign and local companies are permitted to mine in Burma, has been stalled in Union Parliament for more than two years. Regulations establishing an environmental impact assessment procedure for the Ministry of Mines remain in draft form despite more than a year of deliberation.

Vani Sathisan, legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists, said that the ongoing dispute over the Ban Chaung project highlighted the pressing need for legislative reform.

“This is a country where businesses normally proceed without input from local communities. Such secrecy fosters serious human rights abuses,” she told The Irrawaddy.

“In the absence of such key legislation that would protect the communities’ rights and provide for a legal redress—and coupled with a judiciary that is not able to enforce these laws with independence and competence and provide access to remedy—communities are left in the lurch.”

Coal fired power projects, for which the Ban Chaung project was established to help service, have in recent years been a growing source of community discontent in southern Burma, particularly Tenasserim Division and coastal areas of Mon State.

Over the last five years, a total of seven coal-fired power plants have been proposed in Tenasserim, with a combined maximum generating power of nearly 14,000 megawatts.

A proposed 4,000MW power plant to service the Dawei SEZ was scuttled by the Thein Sein government in January 2012 on environmental grounds, in the wake of community opposition to the project. Last year, Thailand’s Andaman Power & Utility said it had reached agreement with the Ministry of Electric Power to construct a scaled-down, 500MW coal plant to power the SEZ, where future development plans are largely underwritten by Thai investment.