MAC: Mines and Communities

Press Release: June 16, 2001

Published by MAC on 2001-06-16

Press Release: June 16, 2001

Demonstration at AGM of Robert Friedland's Ivanhoe against support for Burma's misery


Shareholders of Ivanhoe Mines were greeted by 40 to 50 demonstrators at the company's annual general meeting Friday morning at the Pan Pacific Hotel in downtown Vancouver.

Burmese exiles and student groups joined together with environmental, social justice and human rights activists, Filipino and Indian activists and labour leaders from the Canadian Labour Congress, BC Federation of Labour, the Steelworkers, CEP, and the ILWU Local 400 to denounce Ivanhoe for its partnership with Burma's military regime, cited internationally for gross human rights violations, its refusal to recognize the results of 1990 democratic elections and the persecution of pro-democracy and ethnic groups.

Demonstrators staged a mock "die-in", lining chalk-marked bodies with words such as "child soldier", "slavery", "dead student protestor" across the entrance way, while sign waving protestors carried a gigantic puppet of controversial Ivanhoe chairman Robert Friedland and a banner depicting sites of forced labour in the Southeast Asian country.

"We managed to get our message across", voiced protest organizer Aaron James, "The company cannot expect that we will let up in our pressure."

"We are calling the company to divest from Burma until Aung San Suu Kyi's government, elected in 1990, is in place", said James. 

Demonstrators pointed to the links the company has with "forced labour and horrendous atrocities" in development of the Ivanhoe copper mine site. 

"Seven villages were forcibly relocated and 1000 hectares of land was confiscated for its Letpataung expansion. Seven people died will constructing a dam the mine uses." exclaimed protestor John Stevens, "We cannot expect to sit by and watch a company profit or skirt their
responsibility under these conditions."

Offered as one such project was the Pakkoku-Monywa railway, built with the forced labour of over 921,000 villagers.

A company risk assessment report distributed last year pointed to the use of the Thazi grid as a source of power for the expansion project. The Thazi dam was constructed with the forced labour of 3 to 5,000 people and seven people died in constructing the site.

In performing forced labour, civilians undertake intensive manual labour - such as digging trenches - at an exhausting pace with hand tools and sometimes beast of burden, surviving on limited rations of rice. Those serving forced labour must also supply money, food and hand tools. Children and the elderly are not spared. Patrolling solders regularly shoot or beat civilians with batons, rifle buts or bamboo sticks for failing to keep up, and, under the intense strain, already malnourished and ill due to the absence of provisions for medicines, civilians loose consciousness, fall to the wayside or die.

As villager Myo Myint described: "People were working there for 4 or 5 months (at a time)…Soldiers were guarding us. They scolded the people and even beat them."

Convicts, shackled, undertake the most dangerous sections of the terrain, such as breaking rock on steep slopes, and at least half die according to Karen Human Rights Group. Farmers who once could provide amply for their families are unable to sustain harvest yields while undertaking forced labour, which contributes to famine, a fact that is heightened by extortion of crops by battalions stationed to provide security for the mine.

In constructing the Thazi dam, an area of 23 sacred pagodas was submerged and their relics looted by solders, and carried off "in a helicopter." Thazi is a location for ancient pagodas built hundreds of years ago.

"The very idea of the use of forced labour by anybody anywhere is as abhorrent to Ivanhoe as it is to any right-thinking person." said Ivanhoe president Daniel Kunz.

The entire area around the mine was enclosed and military checkpoints established. Seven villages were forcibly relocated and over 1000 hectares of land confiscated without compensation to make way for a planned mine expansion, according to Grave Diggers: A Report on Mining in Burma, released last year which profiles Ivanhoe and Friedland.

Driven from their homes, relocated populations experience a cycle of extreme deprivation. Most of the displaced populations end up destitute in disease-ridden shanties lacking proper sanitation, and some have turned to begging or prostitution to survive, while others have found menial, dead-end employment. Food scarcity remains an on-going struggle, a reality heightened by confiscation of possessions that occurs with expropriation.

Starvation therefore is significant and illnesses related to this - such as stunted growth, maternal and child mortality - are rampant within the camps. Homes are poorly constructed and often exposed to the elements, using wood posts covered in tin or tarp. Further, communities must rely on wells and river water that has been severely contaminated from the chemicals and tailings released from the mine site, documented in the Grave Diggers report. Communities are drinking and bathing in polluted drinking water. Schools lack adequate resources to teach children, and most sit empty. Children are often too busy serving forced labour orders to attend them if they could. Cold, hungry, fearful and uncertain about how they will cope, under the presence of military officers who show little remorse and who themselves are young, given the recruitment of children into the army as young as 12.

Concerns over working conditions were also raised. Safety regulations are not enforced in Burma, said a former mining engineer in an interview contained in Grave Diggers.

"[The authorities] say 'it is your choice to risk your life or not. You are the seller and we cannot take responsibility for you. People will die one day, now or later. When you die, it will be due time.'" said the miner.

The Grave Diggers report also alluded to the deplorable safety standards during the construction of the mine, where villagers were not prevented from "running all over…even during blasting."

Last January, The Toronto Star revealed that wages had fallen from C$93 a week to C$67, a decline of 30%. Since unions are outlawed, workers at the mine have no protection or recource. Meanwhile, profits from the mine grew to $8.8 million last year from $5 million the year previous, an increase of almost 75%.

In a joint letter to Chairman Robert Friedland written prior to the AGM, Ken Georgetti of the Canadian Labour Congress and Fred Hicks, General Secretary of the International Confederation of Energy and Mineworkers Union said that Ivanhoe was "directly propping up the regime", stating that the position of the international labour movement was that "it is impossible to do business in Burma without subsidizing the forced labour and other human rights violations."

Inside the shareholders meeting, Eric Snider pressured the company through tough questions regarding the Monywa project and asked for a "clear statement" that the company will inform their military partners that
Ivanhoe will not take advantage of projects that "continue to be built on the backs of those who have been taken from their homes against their will and forced work without compensation under degrading conditions under the point of a gun."

In a prepared company statement, Ivanhoe president Daniel Kunz questioned whether the company either helped to pay for or used forced labour in relation to its activities at the first phase of the development of the Sebetaung and Kyisintaung (S&K) deposits, ignoring the use of forced labour in relation to the second $400-million Letpataung phase. The company, however, clearly profited in the first phase from the development of a acid treatment facility built by a regime that almost exclusively constructs projects with forced labour.

Democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been placed under house arrest for much of the last decade, has asked companies not to do business in Burma, since it only serves to bolster the regime and a "small select elite" and does not benefit ordinary people. "If companies from [the West] are prepared to invest under these circumstances, then it gives the military regime reason to think that, after all, they can continue with violating human rights because even Western business companies don't mind."

Kunz went on to attack opponents through "errors and innuendo", claiming that the protestors were part of a "campaign to influence Canadian government policy and force political change in [Burma]."

"We think engagement is better than isolation."

"The military government, unfortunately is the only form of government that can deal with such a complex problem." suggested Kunz in a Canadian Press newswire article last year.

Suu Kyi has long argued against engagement, stating categorically that despite over a decade of engagement, little has changed. The regime still continues to engage in systemic human rights atrocities and the generals have yet to move toward recognition of 1990 elections or entertain in dialogue with the democratically elected leaders. "In spite of international scrutiny, violations of human rights in Burma continue."

Chanting "Villages burns while profits turn! No copper for blood!", demonstrators then moved over to the offices of Ivanhoe at the Waterfront Centre and demanded that Robert Friedland come down and address the gather protestors, however guards prevented the assembled body to enter the premises.

The joint venture is the largest foreign investment in mining, and it remains one of only 3 foreign companies in the mining sector, all Canadian, the others being Calgary, Canada-based Leeward Capital Corp., who retains a joint venture with the junta to export amber, and a third company, East Asia Gold Corp., a Spokane, Washington firm with offices in Vancouver that signed a joint venture to high-grade gold deposits near the central Burmese town of Mandalay.

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