Opponents of Hpa-an Cement Factory Score Victory—for Now

By Lawi Weng & Nang Seng Nom 1 April 2016

RANGOON — Plans to build a cement factory in Karen State have been suspended following a mass prayer vigil held in protest of the development by residents of Hpa-an Township earlier this week, according to local sources.

Saw Moe Set, an officer from the economic department of Karen National Union (KNU) Brigade 7, told The Irrawaddy on Friday that “we all agreed to suspend the project, but we did not cancel it. We may continue discussions with the locals to start the project in the future.”

He was referring to the four Karen ethnic armed groups with a presence in the area, including his own, the Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council, the Karen Border Guard Force and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA). The decision was made on Wednesday, he said, after leaders of the four Karen armed groups met with locals opposed to the project.

A day earlier, hundreds of locals in the Karen State capital Hpa-an gathered to voice objections to the recently revived proposal to develop the cement factory, which was put on hold two years ago pending public consultation. The prayer vigil and protest was held amid concerns about the potential environmental and public health impacts of the project.

An unknown Chinese company was to build and run the factory under a 30-year build-operate-transfer agreement with the four Karen armed groups, Saw Moe Set said.

“If the project will have many drawbacks, we will not implement this project. If this project has benefits for our locals, we will implement it,” he said, adding that the local population might get full electricity as part of the deal.

Saw Hla Kyaw, a local from Mi Karen village, site of the proposed cement factory, said: “It is a Chinese company from Yunnan. The factory will be built nearby the village, therefore our locals dislike it. They [the Karen ethnic armed groups’ leaders] did not come to inform us directly yet that the project was suspended, we only heard about it from media.”

The proposed plant, near Kawt Phyan Mountain, would reportedly have the capacity to produce 5,000 tons of cement per day.

There are already two cement factories in Hpa-an run by the government and the military’s Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL), which have a combined production capacity of 4,900 tons per day. Both factories are located in Myaingkalay town, with the new project just a few miles away from the current operations, according to the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN).

Saw Tha Phoe, an ethnic Karen environmentalist from KESAN, told The Irrawaddy this week that the local population was facing enough health problems from the existing factories, which he linked to both air and noise pollution.