Saturday, August 19, 2017

Shan State coal mine cited in fight against resource extraction

Shan activists and politicians are calling for a halt to resource extraction in parts of Myanmar plagued by conflict, with one human rights group using a controversial coal mine to highlight the damage these projects are inflicting on local communities.

An earth-mover drives along a ridge of coal at Tigyit mine in Shan State. Photo: StaffAn earth-mover drives along a ridge of coal at Tigyit mine in Shan State. Photo: Staff

The Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) on August 2 urged an immediate suspension of the Nam Ma coal mines in Shan State’s Thibaw/Hsipaw township, where fighting has flared in recent months, as well as reiterating a call for similar stoppages at all other extraction projects in areas of ethnic conflict.

“Projects should only be reconsidered when a federal peace settlement has been reached, granting local communities the right to decide over natural resources in their areas,” the SHRF said in a report.

Its report detailed a Tatmadaw offensive against the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP), an ethnic armed group, in May that led to arbitrary arrests, torture and killing of local civilians. The military move, near the Nam Ma coal mines, left “no doubt that a main aim of the offensive was to safeguard the mining operations”, the SHRF said.

The report adds to growing scrutiny of the mining operation. On April 1, hundreds of villagers gathered at a temple in the Nam Ma area to protest the coal extraction and demand that it be put to a stop.

According to the SHRF, that local opposition caught the attention of the SSPP, which sent officers to assess the situation at the mining site on May 17, one day before the Tatmadaw launched its offensive to “drive out” the ethnic armed group.

The May 18 assault included an aerial bombardment and more than 500 Tatmadaw troops, leading over 1000 civilians to flee, mostly to the towns of Hsipaw and Lashio.

Questions about the mines were also raised last month in both the Shan State legislature and the Union-level lower house of parliament.

State MP Nang San San Aye (Shan Nationalities League for Democracy; Hsipaw 1) raised the issue on July 12, asking whether the company primarily responsible for the coal excavation, Mandalay-based Ngwe Yi Pale, had obtained an operating permit from the government. She went on to ask whether it would be possible to suspend any such contract.

The inquiry was forwarded to the Union Ministry for Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation.

“My question was unanswered,” Nang San San Aye said. “The Hsipaw Pyithu Hluttaw MP is also trying to get an answer. We will keep doing what the people want and what the people asked for. We are representatives of the people, so we have a responsibility.”

On August 1, Pyithu Hluttaw lawmaker Sai Thant Zin (SNLD; Hsipaw) got his reply, being told that the Ngwe Yi Pale company obtained a permit in 2010 with a licence to operate the coal mine for 10 years.

That answer did not satisfy the lower house MP, who said the firm was operating the mine long before it had received official approval from the government.

“Since 2004, the Mandalay-based Ngwe Yi Pale company began work in the Nam Ma area. According to the reply, they just got a permit in 2010. And they didn’t get the permission or agreement of the locals, nor guarantees or tests for the environmental [impacts],” Sai Thant Zin said.

The SHRF report said mining at Nam Ma began in the 1990s, at the time wholly carried out by the Tatmadaw. In 2004, Ngwe Yi Pale entered into a joint venture with the state-owned No 3 Mining Enterprise, becoming the main excavator.

“I heard that the reason behind the protest of the villagers from Nam Ma was that the company broke the promises they made,” Sai Thant Zin said, adding that, “We have to consider both sides and keep trying not to bring suffering to the locals. We have plans to watch over the controversial coal project until it is cleared up.”

In addition to fuelling conflict, the SHRF said the coal mining “has destroyed farmlands, blocked and contaminated water sources, and caused air pollution, particularly impacting Pieng Hsai and Wan Long villages. Despite repeated complaints from local communities, Ngwe Yi Pale company has continuously expanded its mining operations.”

One of the key resolutions to come out of the recent Ethnic Youth Conference, which brought together some 800 participants in Panglong, Shan State, similarly called for the immediate cessation of major business projects involving natural resources in conflict zones.