MAC: Mines and Communities

Burma's mining is far from conflict-free - on the contrary

Published by MAC on 2014-04-17
Source: Irrawaddy, Businessweek, DVB (2014-04-11)

Any prospect of Burma becoming a "conflict-free minerals" country is receding even further into the future, as two regional armies fight over the control of gold.

The value of the country's appalling trade in "blood jade" also went up last year, by almost a billion dollars.  

Shan, Wa rebels clash over gold in Eastern Burma

The Irrawaddy

8 April 2014

Clashes broke out between the Shan State Army South and the United Wa State Army over the weekend, with the fighting brought on by a dispute over Wa gold mining activities in southern Shan State's Mong Pan Township.

Officials from the Restoration Council of Shan State, the political wing of the SSA-S, said the clashes began on Saturday morning, with the altercation reportedly stemming from continued Wa gold mining activities in an RCSS-controlled area of Mong Pan, a territory near the Salween River in eastern Burma.

The Wa control land east of the Salween near Mong Tong Township, where UWSA troops regularly provide security for Wa companies mining gold along the river. The SSA-S controls Mong Pan, west of the Salween, with the weekend clash es occurring some 20 miles south of the town.

Col Aung Kyan Murng, the coordinator of RCSS's Mong Pan liaison office, told The Irrawaddy that the fighting occurred because the Wa had crossed the river to the west. "Their territory is on the eastern side of the Salween," he said.

The fighting took place at just after 9 am on Saturday, with both RCSS and Wa troops converging on the area. One Wa soldier was reportedly killed and another injured, Aung Kyan Murng said.

The UWSA could not be reached for comment. The RCSS said it had not been in contact with the UWSA since the fighting.

A local RCSS official in Mong Pan, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Irrawaddy that the clashes occurred because the UWSA had not complied with an RCSS demand that the Wa cease mining operations in RCSS territory.

Locals said the clashes continued on Monday, but Aung Kyan Murng could not confirm those accounts and said the RCSS w as still trying to make contact with its troops in the area concerned.

"The Wa must leave the territory-if not, the fighting is likely to continue," said a local RCSS official. He added that "leaders of both parties should talk about it, the problem will not be solved only with troops on the ground."

Territories between the two ethnic rebel groups have been delineated via mutual agreement, and rules are in place that forbid incursions into the other's area of control. The Salween River, running north to south through the area, divides the two sides and demarcates their respective territories.

Both armed rebel groups provide security for affiliated gold mining enterprises in Shan State.

The UWSA governs two autonomous "special administrative regions" carved out of Shan State, consisting of separate territories in the northern and southern reaches of the state that were granted under the 2008 military-backed Constitution. Eth nic Wa rebels signed a ceasefire with the Burmese government in 1989.

The RCSS signed a ceasefire with the government in 2012 and has opened liaison offices to communicate with the local military and to oversee business and development projects, as is the case for many of the other ethnic armed groups in Burma that have signed ceasefires with Naypyidaw.


Letpadaung Trainees Go on Strike Over Pay and Conditions

By Zarni Mann

The Irrawaddy

10 April 2014

MANDALAY - Local trainees at the Chinese company working on the highly controversial Letpadaung copper mining project in central Burma are protesting for higher wages and better working conditions.

The massive project in Sagaing Division-a joint venture between Chinese firm Wanbao and Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd, a Burmese military company-has been hit by widespread protests from locals displaced by the project and activists concerned about its environmental and social impacts. Work resumed in November after a stoppage, which saw a parliamentary investigation into the project and led to profit-sharing terms being revised to give the Burmese govern ment a larger stake.

On Thursday, 224 local trainees from 26 villages in the Letpadaung area staged a protest along the main road leading up to Wanbao's office.

The trainees, who have been receiving training for more than five months, carried placards and shouted slogans demanding proper workers' rights. The young trainees come from families who had land confiscated to make way for the sprawling mine.

"Our salary is lower than the janitors," said Phyo Nyi Htwe, one of the trainees on strike.

"Our work is mainly menial work such as sprinkling acid over the soil. We are not fully provided with good equipment to protect ourselves from the acid."

Wanbao took on the trainees as part of its agreement to provide more job opportunities for locals.

Under the terms of the trainee program, they will later have the opportunity of becoming fully employed by Wanbao. In the meantime, however, they are paid just US$120 per month.

The trainees told T he Irrawaddy that most are university graduates, and that they had demanded their wages be doubled, but the company refused.

"We've asked the company and they said they would negotiate, but they failed to do so. That's why we went out on the street to show them what we want," said another trainee, who declined to be named.

The striking trainees will demonstrate again on Friday, and are demanding a meeting with management to settle the dispute before work begins again after next week's Thingyan holiday.

"If they do not agree to increase the payment, all of us will quit our jobs," the trainee said.

A Wanbao representative insisted that the company had provided all necessary safety equipment and a suitable salary for trainees.

"We've provided them with what they deserved," said Myint Thein, the company's administrative manager.

"It would be more appropriate to complain if they were permanent workers, but we will think about it. Since they are just the trainees, not yet employees of ours and they are not skilled yet, it is hard for us to increase their pay level."

He said the workers appeared not to appreciate that they were not yet full employees of Wanbao.

"We have no intention to oppress them with the lower salary. I think there is some misunderstanding about the term ‘trainee' and I think someone is stirring up problems without understanding the nature of their employment," he said.

He said the trainees would have to complete a test in order to become permanent staff, and then they would be entitled to higher pay.

"We will provide a better salary to whoever passes the test to become a permanent worker. The pay level will vary, depending on their skill as well," he said. "We will, however, negotiate with the protesting trainees for a positive result."


Myanmar's growing-and dangerous-jade trade

Businessweek

25 March 2014

In the final three quarters of 2013, export earnings from Myanmar's jade trade reached $920 million-up more than a third from a year earlier-according to newly released figures from the country's Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development.

But even that hefty sum almost certainly grossly underestimates the total value, as much of the jade is smuggled out of Myanmar (formerly known in the West as Burma) and never logged in government books or tax logs. A 2011 study by the Harvard Ash Center estimated the annual value of Myanmar's jade trade to be $8 billion.

While President Obama has relaxed most trade sanctions imposed on Myanmar during the era of military junta rule, the U.S. retains the ban on importing jade (and ruby) from My anmar-owing to the human-rights abuses that frequently accompany the mining.

Much of the prized jade in Myanmar is mined in northern Kachin state, where the 8,000-person Kachin Independence Army is fighting for independence. The ownership of the mines is unclear; national oversight is impossible; and international monitors and nongovernmental organizations are not able to operate in the region.

As Reuters reported in a harrowing investigation last fall, jade miners often labor in unsafe conditions, face abusive managers, and are exposed to myriad other risks. In particular, "shooting galleries" for heroin users operate openly alongside some large jade mines.

With needles shared indiscriminately by multiple users, the rate of HIV has skyrocketed. In the township of Hpakant in Kachin state, health workers told Reuters that 40 percent of heroin-using jade miners are infected with HIV.

The largest customer for Myanmar's jade is neighboring China, and illegal trade across the border has grown quickly since the U.S. imposed sanctions on jade and other gemstones went in 2008.

Much as diamonds hold a special place in the minds of American consumers, it would require a massive shift in public perception to convince Chinese buyers that Myanmar's precious stones constitute "blood jade."


Deconsecration stokes rumour of Latpadaung temple's destruction

Democratic Voice of Burma

1 April 2014

Many locals in Latpadaung believe that the destruction of a Buddhist stupa on the site of the copper mining project is set to go ahead after the structure was deconsecrated in a 30 March ceremony.

Rumour as to the planned destruction of the religious buildings - made famous by venerated monk Ledi Sayadaw Ñanadhaja who presided over the complex almost 100 years ago - has been a major driver of local consternation towards the joint venture project, run by Chinese firm Wanbao and the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH).

The rumour abounds despite repeated government statements that the stupa and hall are to be relocated, as opposed to destroyed.

The deconsecration ceremony is the second of its kind to be held in relation to the buildings.

In February, local residents dismissed a ritual observed by high-ranking monks of the government-linked Manhana, the National Head Monks Association, on grounds that there was no local participation.

Ashin Arlawka, a monk who presides over the local Sanmyawadi Monastery in Zeetaw village, Latpadaung, was shut out of that previous ceremony.

He believes that Sunday's event is an indication that t he structures will soon be levelled.

"The ritual was observed early on Sunday morning, which means the structures can now be demolished at any point - I don't think the site will be blown up with mines or explosives, but it may be bulldozed."

The inability of locals to view the fenced off temple site has contributed to the uncertainty regarding its future.

Khin San Hlaing, a Burmese lower house representative of Sagaing Division and member of the parliament's Latpadaung Copper Mining Project Investigation Commission, said the destruction of the religious structures would contradict recommendations made by the commission in its report.

"In the commission's report we recommended that Wanbao and UMEH ensure the structures stay intact upon the relocation and to seek approval from local people before making move - it is very clear now that the operators are not heeding the recommendations," said Khin San Hlaing.

"Th e responsibility for this mainly lies upon the committee that was formed to implement the recommendations in the commission's report."

That commission was formed after a protest by Latpadaung villagers and Buddhist monks, calling for suspension of the mining project, felt the brunt of a brutal police crackdown, which left over 70 people injured in November 2012.

The Aung San Suu Kyi-led commission recommended the publication of an environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA). Australian consultancy firm Knight Piésold compiled the report, a draft of which was released in February.

Now Wanbao is fighting off criticism stemming from information released in the draft ESIA, which states that there is "acid and metals generation arising from waste rock" which pose an "extremely high" level of risk that cannot be mitigated. This is of particular environmental concern due to the vulnerability of a high water table that exists under the La tpadaung site.

In a publicly available letter from Knight Piésold to Burmese media group Eleven, who first reported the threat, the consultancy defended the environmental integrity of the project on behalf of Wanbao:

"Knight Piésold holds the view that compliance with the environmental and social management plans, as well as the monitoring and reporting proposed in the ESIA, will limit the potential for significant issues arising from operation of the Latpadaung Copper Project."

The Australian firm, while deflecting blame away from Wanbao, noted the sensitivity surrounding the issue of the forced relocation of farmers, who have continued protests and refused compensation en masse.

"Land compensation and resettlement and the associated provision of job opportunities are known to be key concerns to the community," the letter reads. "A perceived failure to address these issues is strongly influencing the communities' trust tha t commitments made in the ESIA will be fulfilled.

"This issue is not an issue for Wanbao alone as each of the parties in the Product Sharing Contract has a role to play in the process of land compensation, resettlement and provision of employment to those who have lost land."

Last week, Thaw Zin, a prominent anti-mine activist was sentenced to 15 months jail for his part in past protests.

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