Tenasserim Coal Mining Stokes Ire of Local Villagers

By Saw Yan Naing 13 January 2015

Villagers have voiced concerns over ongoing large-scale coal mining in southern Burma’s Tenasserim Division, saying the extractive project is affecting the livelihoods of residents in five area villages.

Residents say mining operations have brought flooding that has killed off crops and contaminated local water supplies, with some villagers nonetheless forced to use the unpotable water in rivers and streams surrounding the mine.

“The companies are expanding their mining area,” said Naw Pe Law, a leader of the local community-based organization Takapaw Youth Group. “It [mining operations] has entering into betel nut plantations that belong to villagers. So, when it rains, waste soil floods plantations nearby and kills betel trees.”

Naw Pe Law, who lives in Tenasserim Division’s Dawei district, complained of a lack of transparency from the project’s implementers.

“We don’t know the degree to which they are expanding the mining. We want to know how many acres they have done [mined] and how many acres are left. We worry that it will exceed the permitted area. We worry it will be like the Letpadaung mining project,” she said, referring to a controversial copper mine in central Burma.

The Takapaw Youth Group leader said the Karen National Union (KNU), a rebel armed group controlling some territory within the mining site, had permitted coal extraction on 60 acres of land, but Burmese authorities granted 2,100 acres to miners.

Water supplies in five villages have been affected by the mining: Ka Htaung Ni, Tanin Kler, Htu Ler, Gaw Htee and Mawng Thatu. Tanin Kler has also begun to see its betel trees negatively impacted by the mining.

Three companies are involved in the coal mining, according to Naw Pe Law and KNU sources. Two Thai firms—Thai Asset Company and East Star Company—have partnered with local firm Mayflower to jointly develop the project. Operations began in 2010, initially without informing local residents, critics say.

Attempts by The Irrawaddy to contact the companies on Monday were unsuccessful.

In October 2014, local villagers, representatives of community-based organizations and the companies involved, local political parties and Burmese authorities met to discuss problems associated with the mining. Local residents at that time called for a total end to coal mining, but the companies instead requested—apparently with success—to expand the project.

The coal mining project in Tenasserim Division is partly controlled by the KNU’s Brigade 4, which holds territory including the road linking Thailand’s Kanchanaburi province and the multi-billion dollar Dawei special economic zone (SEZ).

An official from KNU Brigade 4 who is familiar with the situation said local residents had sent complaints to both Burmese authorities and the KNU, saying the mining operations were polluting their water sources and damaging farmlands.

The official, who asked for anonymity, told The Irrawaddy that KNU Brigade 4 had responded to those concerns by opting not to authorize an expansion of the mining project in 2013, the same year that tax collection—a common practice by armed groups in territory they control—by the KNU ceased.

“We don’t permit them [companies] and don’t collect tax anymore. But, the operation is still going on. About seven to eight 18-wheel trucks are going in and out every day,” the KNU official said, claiming that “good relationships” between the companies and some senior KNU leaders were making it difficult to prevent the mine’s expansion.

Local residents near the mining area have repeatedly called for an end to the coal mining, petitioning Burmese authorities and the KNU several times. They have also staged several protests against the project to no avail, according to local residents.

Khin Maung Aye, president of the Tenasserim Division Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told The Irrawaddy last year that many domestic and foreign companies from Thailand, China and elsewhere were eager to explore the largely uncharted Tenasserim hills for mineral wealth, with many foreign firms applying for licenses in recent years.