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Myanmar's Mines Desperately Need Reform, as Foreign Firms Implicated in Rights Abuses

Amnesty International has accused foreign mining companies of profiting from serious human rights abuses in Myanmar, as the country struggles with the might of globalized capital. But there are some reasons for optimism.
February 10, 2015, 7:35pm
Photo via AP

Amnesty International has claimed foreign companies are profiting from serious human rights abuses perpetrated in Myanmar's mining industry, as well as accusing the country's authorities of violent repression and forced mass evictions in the pursuit of mineral riches.

In a report released on Tuesday, the rights group focuses on the notorious Monywa copper project, comprising the Sabetaung and Kyisintaung ("S&K" mine), and the Letpadaung mine in the country's central Monywa District. Since beginning operations in the 1980s, the project has fallen short of nearly every good-practice indicator, according to the report, titled Open for Business? Corporate Crime and Abuses at Myanmar Copper Mine.

In 1978, a Myanmar government-owned enterprise began developing deposits at what is now the S&K mine in central Myanmar. In 1996 a subsidiary of the Canadian company, Ivanhoe Mines (now Turquoise Hill Resources) entered into a joint venture with the government-owned enterprise and reaped the rewards for over a decade.

In 2010, the Monywa project was taken over by the Myanmar military company, UMEHL, and Wanbao Mining Ltd, a subsidiary of the Chinese state-owned military company, Norinco. As is often the case with mines, it didn't take long for the first of many abuse cases to spring up, with the initial development in 1996-97 forcibly evicting thousands of people.

"These concerns have been in the public domain since the early 2000s," Meghna Abraham, Amnesty International's corporate crimes researcher, told VICE News. "After all that attention, one hoped that the government would finally take some corrective measures and address the issues… and that's just not happened."

As well as the forced evictions, Amnesty details the lackluster environmental assessment, the opaque sales of corporate assets, and the collusion of abuse by the foreign companies involved. The report also mentions the harsh crackdowns on peaceful protesters — including the shooting dead of a woman in December 2014 and the infamous use of white phosphorous to clear a sit-in protest in November 2012.

"No one has been held accountable," continues Abraham. "There has been no accountability of officials who have been implicated… and the companies haven't been held accountable."

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According to the report, both the Canadian Ivanhoe Mines, and the Chinese Wanbao Mining have "built their business on a foundation of human rights abuse." With regards to Ivanhoe, the forced evictions of the S&K mines' inception was apparently done with their knowledge, yet the wrongs were never addressed. Wanbao Mining, meanwhile, is charged with "directly engaging" with the forced evictions and even providing "material assistance" to police during protests. Both deny the charges and wrote full ripostes, attached in the report's appendix.

Despite the focus on just one project, the issues raised show wider-reaching structural flaws in the investment and development sectors of a country suddenly exposed to the full might of globalized capital. The report calls its own findings, "a cautionary tale for the government of Myanmar and investors."

Myanmar has a long history of mining, with silver, zinc, lead, tin, tungsten, and precious stones having been mined since the fifteenth century. The country itself is incredibly rich in gems, mineral resources, and oil and gas reserves. Yet after undergoing the military dictatorship's 26-year-long policy of isolation from 1962 until 1988, coupled with Western sanctions, the country found itself near destitute and with a seriously underdeveloped infrastructure.

In 2012, after sanctions on the country began to ease, foreign companies and investors eagerly spied the country's potential. In just one example, Coca-Cola immediately returned to Myanmar in 2012 after nearly 60 years out of the country. On my last visit, a large coke poster even welcomed me to the country.

Yet with regards to the extractive industries, a restrictive 1994 mining law has meant that many companies and investors have adopted a more patient, wait-and-see approach. Meanwhile, the promise of new legislation, designed to improve practices and clear the way for further foreign investment, continues to rattle around the country's houses of parliament.

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"We believe that within the month the law will be [passed] by parliament" U Aye Lwin, secretary general of the Myanmar Federation of Mining Association, told VICE News. "I will say that there are so many possibilities for mining projects now."

It seems to be only a matter of time before the extractive industry is capitalized on more by both domestic and foreign money, and the worry is that the old structures will continue to oblige social and environmental abuse, even if new reforms and laws are enacted.

"The challenge in implementing those reforms, once adopted, will be lack of government capacity, and lack of transparency," Vicky Bowman, director of the Yangon-based Myanmar Center for Responsible Business, told VICE News. "But we have to start somewhere."

Abraham believes that the Myanmar government has begun moving in the right direction, but has shown through Monywa that it is still falling short. "Definitely in the last couple of years the government have taken some positive steps; that is undeniable. I think what we are seeing is a lack of commitment to follow through, especially when, in this context, the military owns the business involved."

The issue of the military, as well as the country's omnipresent "crony" cliques, is yet another hurdle for reform. With strong ties to big business, the military, and politics, the cronies of Myanmar are infamous for operating with apparent impunity.

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"That's the question," said Abraham, "will the government act when the military is involved in some of the business? So far we haven't seen that."

"In the case of the Letpadaung mine, this may well have been a contributory factor to the current problems," added Bowman. "UMEHL, the military partner (in the Monywa Project), apparently has significant responsibility for overseeing community engagement by the joint venture, which is not a good starting point, given their reputation and also their lack of experience in doing this in any context."

Nonetheless, Lwin is optimistic that with the new law and reforms, mining in Myanmar can be beneficial for the country's economy and its people, without abrogating the rights of locals or the environment. "Now we are a member of the EITI (Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative). We are going to follow the regulations and we will be adhering to them and submitting papers to them," he states.

Abraham is also hopeful for Myanmar's future in the extractive industries. "The nature of human rights is we have to be optimistic," she tells me with a chuckle, before continuing: "When we went to Myanmar, we see a clampdown, we see arrests but there is a change. The civil society space has increased. There are amazing activists and lawyers and others working on this. And I think there are people in government who are trying to make change happen too."