MAC/20: Mines and Communities

South Asia's most ambitious industrial project raises many fears

Published by MAC on 2011-12-27
Source: Mizzima News, PlanetArk

Up to 30,000 people are expected to be moved from their homes to make way for what could be South Asia's most ambitious - and destructive - industrial project.

The Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ) will include steel mills, a coal-fired power plant, and a web of petrochemical, pulp and paper factories, refineries, "super highways" and a deep water port.

Such a massive project - currently costed at some US$50 billion - will dwarf even POSCO's integrated iron and steel enterprise in Orissa, India: one that has met vigorous opposition from local villagers over the past few years. See: India: POSCO opponents suffer vicious armed attack

The Dawei SEZ is being promoted by the most oppressive state in Asia. It will eradicate land currently tilled by Burmese farmers to produce rice, cashew and rubber - and construction of one road has already sliced through a farming area.

In the following special report, a Reuters reporter puts this "development" in the context of the Burmese military's recent "concessions" to the country's beleaguered democracy movement.

It's an overview which many will find far too optimistic.

Once the bulldozers move in force on Dawei, transforming villages and fields into a wasteland, it's surely inevitable that a raft of human rights abuses will swiftly follow.

Meanwhile, Burma's military junta appears to be moving towards "peace talks" with the powerful Karen National Union (KNU), leaving open the question of who will control the large number of mineral deposits and other resources in the "rebel" areas.

Among these areas is one controlled by KNU Brigade Number 1, purportedly including the  Dawei SEZ itself.

Insight: Testing The Limits Of Freedom In New Myanmar


19 December 2011

Reuters - Tun Aung knew there were plans for his village to be moved to make way for a multi-billion dollar industrial zone and deep-sea port, but the whole thing was hard to imagine.

A farmer holds what he says is lead dust he pulled straight from a creek in the countryside near Dawei in southern Myanmar
A farmer holds what he says is lead dust he pulled from a creek in
the countryside near Dawei in southern Myanmar. Source: Reuters

Then one day last month he discovered a new road slicing through his family's cashew tree grove, part of a network that will link to a super-highway across southern Myanmar to Thailand.

"I am very angry about this," said the 56-year-old farmer, who said his village leader had agreed under pressure to have everybody relocate. "There was no compensation. This land wasn't bought (by me), it was handed down from my father."

The road is just one piece of a $50 billion deep water port and special economic zone that is meant to transform this wild landscape of beaches, small plantations and scrubland into Southeast Asia's largest industrial complex.

Au Bar Tha, a 57-year-old monk, is one of thousands in the area who face relocation because of the massive project. In the Myanmar ruled by generals, who never hesitated to use brutal force to achieve their ends, that would have been that.

But Myanmar under a new and nominally civilian government has shown itself to be more responsive to the will of people. It cancelled a $3.6 billion Chinese-led dam project in September following weeks of public outrage.

Inspired by that, a grassroots movement has emerged here to oppose the massive development. New legislation passed last month gives them the right to peacefully assemble. "I absolutely don't want to move," Au Bar Tha declares. "I will stand like a stone and if they want to move me they will have to lift me up."

Elsewhere in the country, former student activists who had eschewed politics since a 1988 democracy movement was brutally crushed, are testing the air again. Workers are beginning to organize. Exiles are being wooed to return.

As the former British colony embarks on its most dramatic changes since a 1962 military coup in what was then Burma, mega-projects like the 250 sq km (97 sq mi) Dawei Special Economic Zone hint at a rapid acceleration in both investment and development.

With a metal ruler, Au Bar Tha points at a spot on a photocopied map where a new $8 billion deep-sea port will be carved into the shore. He notes places where an oil refinery, a coal-fired power plant and a petrochemical factory will replace rice fields, cashew and rubber trees and jungle.

Then, he slides the ruler north to his village of Mayingyi and to the words adjacent to it. "What is a combined cycle power plant?" he asks earnestly, hoping rare visitors from outside the area might be able to enlighten him.

Dawei's position on the map highlights Myanmar's geostrategic importance as it emerges from its self-imposed isolation. Road and rail routes from the industrial zone, built by Thailand's biggest construction company, Italian-Thai Development Plc, will link Dawei's port to China, India and Southeast Asia.

In a country where a third of its 55 million people live on less than one U.S. dollar a day, Dawei is striking in its ambition. Super-highways, steel mills, power plants, shipyards, refineries, pulp and paper mills and a petrochemical complex are part of the plan, as are two golf courses and a holiday resort, according to Italian-Thai.

Up to 30,000 people, mostly impoverished rice, cashew and rubber farmers living in thatched-roof huts, must be moved during 10 years of construction, say local activists who are fighting for compensation for the displaced or to block construction of polluting projects.

"We have no grudge"

The new activists take their inspiration from Myanmar's democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a proponent of non-violent resistance. Released from years of house arrest just over a year ago, she has rejoined the political process.

Suu Kyi had opposed the Myitsone dam and helped convince the government to suspend the project. That caught the eye of former activists such as Ba Htoo Maung.

Htoo Htoo, as he is known, was arrested on December 11, 1991, a day after Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was stabbed in the leg with a bayonet and beaten before spending the next 11 years behind bars for helping organize the 1988 protests.

After his release on March 9, 2003, Htoo Htoo gave politics a wide berth. He started a family and taught English and Burmese for a living. "Most people were afraid. I didn't even want to talk about politics."

When Buddhist monk-led protests erupted in 2007, Htoo Htoo stayed away. "Experience taught me a lot," he said in a quiet Yangon cafe. Those demonstrations, too, were soon crushed by the military.

This year, he noticed the tide turning.

Suu Kyi, once reviled by the military rulers and off-limits for the country's independent media, has been courted by the government after she was freed from years of house arrest last year. Her picture is everywhere -- on newspapers, posters, t-shirts and even key rings -- and she said she will run in a by-election for a seat in parliament.

Htoo Htoo is also inching back toward the political arena.

On August 8, friends who had also been active in the student movement invited him out to mark the 21st anniversary of a major student protest.

He decided to go "because the situation was starting to change." At the event, he met Suu Kyi and congratulated her on her meetings with government officials.

Htoo Htoo was encouraged but also concerned. The changes were so quick. He wondered whether the two entrenched sides in Myanmar's long-running political battle could be so easily reconciled.

He launched a movement he calls "Metta," a Buddhist word that roughly means goodwill or peace.

"We have no grudge. We are not interested in revenge," he said. "What we want is the country to change."

After Suu Kyi met President Thein Sein, Htoo Htoo was excited. The long-suppressed student activist in him resurfaced. He wanted to put together a mass public rally in Yangon Square, near city hall in the centre of town, in support of the dialogue.

He met Suu Kyi and sought her opinion.

"'The Lady' he explained, referring to Su Kyi's epithet, "said Metta is good. As for the mass movement, it is too early, she said. We cannot know who will join this mass movement with what ideas and what ambitions."

Rise of Labour

To say mass movements have struggled in Myanmar is an understatement. While other Asian countries have had military rulers, none have been so entrenched in every sector of society as in Myanmar in a bid to stamp out every whisper of dissent.

After the generals killed or jailed thousands in the 1988 demonstrations, they stepped up attacks on ethnic minority groups that have fought for autonomy since independence from Britain in 1948. The junta simply ignored a landslide election win in 1990 by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.

Little wonder then that a labor movement never gained traction despite harsh working conditions for many in the country -- until October, when unions were legalized to the shocking surprise and relief of workers such as Ma Moe.

In July last year, she posted notices in the women's bathrooms of the garment factory where she worked on the outskirts of the former capital Yangon calling for a strike. Management responded with a small pay raise, and the strike was averted. But soon after, the harassment began.

The soft-spoken, 33-year-old was given more work than she could possibly complete, and hounded in other ways, she said. The trouble lasted more than a year before her boss gave her an ultimatum: quit or be fired.

She walked out.

"I cried," she said. "I was worried about the future because my family mainly depended on my salary." She said she earned between 80 cents and $1.50 a day, depending on overtime.

One of the first bills Thein Sein signed as the new president was a Labour Organisation Law that legalized unions and, in theory, gave workers the right to strike.

As the economy advances, Myanmar may well emerge as a low-cost manufacturing hub alongside Vietnam and Bangladesh. Its once-flourishing garment industry was stifled by U.S. and European sanctions. Some expect it to rebound if sanctions are lifted, possibly next year or in 2013.

But the law fails in several crucial respects, said Phoe Phyu, a lawyer who represents disenfranchised workers and farmers. Workers can only strike with permission from authorities and grassroots unions are not allowed to have contact with international organizations, he said.

Conditions will change slowly as the country moves toward democracy, he said, but it is a long road ahead for workers such as Ma Moe. "The new law cannot change things for people like her," said the lawyer, who has been jailed twice for his work.

An old power

Walking the rutted streets of Yangon with its dilapidated colonial-era buildings, Phoe Phyu's comment rings true in other ways: it is easy to see how Myanmar will change, but how progress could be excruciatingly slow.

The city seems ill-prepared for a wave of investment that could come if sanctions are lifted. It has no skyscrapers to house banks; no modern shopping malls for a new consumer generation. Wheezing Japanese cars from the 1970s and 1980s dominate the streets.

It's hard to believe today that Burma in the early 20th century was one of Asia's richest nations and a shining part of the British empire. After seizing Yangon in 1852 and anglicizing its name to Rangoon, Britain developed the area into its administration base, building law courts, parliament buildings, shady parks and botanical gardens. Rangoon University, founded in 1878, became one of Asia's premier universities. Its infrastructure rivaled London's.

Today, chronic power outages and deteriorating buildings are constant reminders of decades of mismanagement that began in 1962 with a disastrous "Burmese Way to Socialism" adopted by the then-leader, General Ne Win. It led to sweeping nationalization and global isolation for the resource-rich country.

In the centre of Yangon, at one of its hippest restaurants, however, Phyu Phyu Tin knows Myanmar's potential.

The 38-year-old managing partner of Monsoon Restaurant and Bar, with a menu that includes dishes from all the countries of Indochina, can trace her family's roots through the prosperous British colonial era.

Her great-grandfather owned enough property to give each of his children a house. Her grandfather worked for the British consulate and spoke better English than Burmese. Her father, Nyunt Tin, a fighter pilot-turned-diplomat, was posted to Hong Kong as Consul General and is now in parliament.

After years of living abroad, Phuy Phuy Tin felt the pull of her homeland in 2003 and opened the restaurant. Now that the country is poised for take off, she and her family are preparing to launch a construction company. Her little sister, Zar Chi Tin, who is living in London, plans to return and join in the business.

The Myanmar diaspora numbers in the millions, including refugees and exiles, and Thein Sein has invited them to return home to help develop the country.

"We are very happy, especially for the next generation," she said, reflecting the optimism that has washed over the country.

"Now we have reason for them to come back. And I think many in the younger generation will come back."

(Editing by Jason Szep and Bill Tarrant)

Gold and antimony in KNU areas attract investors - Kyaw Kha

Mizzima News

21 December 2011

Chiang Mai- Gold and antimony mining permits are being sought by companies interested in exploring and operating mines in Karen National Union (KNU) controlled areas.

The KNU operates seven brigades, and gold can be extracted in areas controlled by Brigade No. 2, 3, 5. Antimony can be extracted in areas controlled by Brigade No. 1, 4, 6.

Currently, antimony is being extracted in Dupalaya District controlled by Brigade No. 6. The area controlled by KNU brigade No. 7 also has potential to produce iron and antimony, officials said.

Companies operating mines in KNU areas pay taxes to the KNU Mining Department. Some companies are now carrying out initial explorations.

"Some companies use intermediaries to negotiate. Other companies use their connections in border areas. They talk about how they will divide the profits," a senior KNU officer told Mizzima. He declined to give the companies names.

KNU Vice Chairman David Thackerbaw told Mizzima, "When the government held peace talk with us, some businessmen acted as intermediaries. Some intermediaries think that they will gain an advantage from both sides."

The Dawei Development Project including the US$ 58 billion Dawei deep-sea port project is in the area of KNU Brigade No. 4.

At least eight companies including the Thuwunna Company and Lin Phone Pyi Company now operate antimony mines in Kyainseikkyi and Kawkareik townships in areas controlled by KNU Brigade No. 6, residents told Mizzima.

Saw Than Kyaw Oo, the former chairman of the Phalon-Sawaw Democratic Party (PSDP) who resigned to form a new party, the Kayin Democratic Party (KDP), has operated antimony mines in Hlaingbwe Township in the area of KNU Brigade No. 7.

"The antimony produced by us is sold inside the country," he told Mizzima. "The antimony is sent to me, and then I send it to Rangoon. Mostly, we run the mines in Kyainseikkyi under an agreement with the KNU."

Meanwhile, KNU joint General-Secretary Major Saw Hla Ngwe said that the central government's decision on affairs regarding the mines in the KNU areas would be clarified only after peace talks with the central government. He said the KNU wants a genuine cease-fire based on political solutions.

"The issue [regarding the mines] and the delay to establish a cease-fire are not related. We have not thought about development work [businesses]. To get a genuine cease-fire, we need to talk about politics," he said.

On Wednesday, central government representatives and KNU representatives held preliminary peace talks on the Thai-Burmese border to discuss a cease-fire.

The government delegation was led by Aung Min. General Mutu Saypo, Pado Rtoe and Pado David Htaw led the KNU delegation. In January, the two sides will hold official peace talks in Hpaan in Karen State.

According to a report by Burma's Environmental Working Group in June: The Burmese government maintains that "all naturally occurring minerals found either on or under the soil of any land on the continental shelf are deemed to be owned by the state." The mining sector is directed by the Myanmar Ministry of Mines whose various branches investigate potential mineral deposits and grant mining concessions to close partners including regional commanders, the Burmese private sector, and some cease-fire groups. Since 1988, when the economy was opened up to foreign investment, the Ministry of Mines began to encourage local and foreign investment in the mining industry.

Very little information on the hundreds of official and unofficial mining concessions given by Burma's Ministry of Mines to local and foreign investors (mostly Chinese enterprises) in the past 20 years is available to the public. Many of the mining companies have friendly ties to non-state armed groups all across the nation.

One reason that the extent of China's stake in Burma's mining sector is incredibly complicated to gauge is that a sizeable portion of mining operations in the country are smaller in scale, remote, and difficult to access.

Due to the lack of laws and regulations protecting the environment against the impacts of mining, mining poses a grave threat to the mountainous regions in the north and delicate coastal areas where tin is collected. Up until about 20 years ago, mining operations were relatively small in scale and cause minimal impacts to the environment.

Traditional methods of mining for gold, gems, and other valuable minerals rely mostly on shovels, picks, pans and screen. For the past two decades, there has been a shift towards large- scale and much more environmentally destructive techniques.

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