Underground Mining in Dawei

By Zue Zue 15 March 2017

DAWEI, Tenasserim Division — Out of a tunnel at the foot of a towering cliff face, two men push a cart full of rocks, singing, and empty their quarry onto the ground.

Through the passageway, which is just three feet wide and six feet high, several shafts course off in different directions. At the end of one, three men drill through the rock wall, a torch illuminating the shadowy scene.

Splinters of rock hitting the ground follow the piercing ring of the drill. After a while, the three men switch off the tool and, seemingly exhausted, take a breather.

“We have to drill until we find the vein,” says 35-year-old foreman Ko Thant Zin, wiping the sweat from his brow. “We take a rest after we reach the target place.”

The mine lies near the village of Bawa Pin, about 25 miles from Dawei in Tenasserim Division where Ko Thant Zin was born and raised. He has been working at the mines of Dawei Land Co. since he graduated almost 15 years ago, specializing in geology and so finding no better job than his current one, he says.

Tenasserim Division is rich in tin and tungsten, a hard, rare metal, and there are 18 mines in Dawei District. Owned by local businesswoman Daw Htay Htay Thu, Dawei Land Mining Co. mainly engages in underground tungsten mining.

Locally, underground mining is known as traditional manual mining, with expert skill key to the profession, explains Ko Thant Zin, and the safety of mine workers taking the utmost importance.

Any explosive material such as gunpowder has to be permitted by the government and is used to blow up the rock strata when it is too hard to be drilled. Dynamiting the strata can either involve lighting the gunpowder with an electric current or burning the safety fuse, the latter method being safer and increasingly used more, says Ko Thant Zin.

“We don’t have much difficulty as we have lots of experience now,” says Ko Kyo Aung, who operates the mining drill. “Accidents happen, but quite rarely. For mine workers here, dynamiting has been a piece of cake.”

Ten years ago, Ko Kyo Aung left his native Aunglan Township in Magwe Division to work at the mine, earning a daily wage of 10,000 kyats as well as 50,000 kyats per month for his supervisory role, some of which he sends back to his family in Aunglan. He vows to continue working in the mine as long as it operates.

“We feel tired only when we are fairly busy. Sometimes, we don’t have much to do, and even get bored,” he laughs.

The miners agree that their work pays more than the construction industry; plus, they say, it is not as tiring because they can work in the shade. Skilled workers earn between 18,000 kyats and 20,000 kyats, though the minimum wage at the mine is 10,000 kyats.

Prioritizing safety, supervisors check the rock walls every day and prop up the unstable places with wooden beams to prevent the walls from caving in. According to Ko Thant Zin, the operation’s leaders began working in the mines as young men nearly four decades ago.

“So they know exactly whether it could collapse or not when they knock the wall. They have worked in mines their whole lives; their expertise guarantees our safety.”

The workers live in the nearby village or in makeshift tents on the area surrounding the mine and their working days start between 7:30 and 8 a.m.

and finish at 4 p.m. with lunch from 11:30 a.m. until 2 p.m.

Women workers hit the rocks with hammers to sort out pieces that contain tungsten. These pieces are crushed with iron rollers, and the rock powders are filtered out several times to retrieve the tungsten. The process finishes after the tungsten is dried on the fire, explain the workers.

These days most mines use technological machinery but this has adverse effects, including excesses of waste water and earth being dumped from the mines, causing environmental and social concerns that lead to disputes between locals and mining companies.

Owner of Dawei Land Mining Co. Daw Htay Htay Thu says labor-intensive conventional mining has little impact on the environment and is more sustainable, while locals use the leftover rocks to pave roads.

“I love the conventional method,” she says. “Though the use of heavy machinery seems to be productive, conventional mining causes little waste, and digging with machinery causes a large amount.”

Pointing at a mountain, Daw Htay Htay Thu says some of the mountains on her land remain intact despite the underground mining. She inherited the mines from her ancestors who ran the operation during the colonial era.

Experts agree that underground mining does not impact the trees on the surface, but point out the risks posed to mine workers in dynamiting.

Caution is as natural to the mine workers as it is vital, and they take it every second.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko