Myanmar’s tragic tin destruction
Tin mining in Myanmar[edit | edit source]
In 2014, the small and historically isolated nation of Myanmar (Burma) in Southeast Asia surprised the global commodities markets by becoming the third-largest producer of tin in the world, behind industry giants China and Indonesia. It was what one Oxford University analyst referred to as a disruptive and potentially “black swan” development, but the rapid growth of Myanmar’s tin mining industry wasn’t all that surprising to the people who lived there. Parts of Myanmar, particularly in the southern tail of the country along the Andaman Sea, have seen dramatic negative impacts as a result of mining operations.
This Tanintharyi Region isn’t the only location where metals mining or chemical plants are popping up, because the government of Myanmar – a closed society ruled by its military for decades – has in recent years welcomed overseas investment and recently enacted the Myanmar Investment Law of 2016. It updates a law passed in 2012 to attract foreign investors, geared towards easy and profitable business. That business was facilitated by progressive easing of economic sanctions imposed by Western nations.
Tin mining isn’t new to Myanmar, though. The country was a major tin and tungsten producer prior to World War II, and the demand for the metals included in the T3G group – along with tantalum and gold – has exploded with the technology revolution. As the once packaging-focused tin market has evolved, so has Myanmar’s mining industry, which in intervening decades was primarily small-scale and artisanal.
Much of Myanmar’s tin is exported as raw ore, however, because the country has limited capacity for processing and production in its own smelters. China imports much of the tin, as does neighboring Thailand, but neither country deals with the ecosystem damage done to Myanmar. That’s a highly visible concern with Heinda district mining operations owned by the Myanmat Pongpipat Co. LTD of Thailand.
Myanmar Pongpipat Company[edit | edit source]
The Heinda mining site, 25 kilometers from the city of Dawei, opened in 1923 and was bought by Myanmar Pongpipat in 1999. It is a large open-pit tin mine in the Dawei “tin district,” which has been home to some 50 mining operations over the last century. Additional significant mining regions include the autonomous Wa state, home to Man Maw mine, believed to be controlled by armed rebel groups.
Myanmar has a history of poor regulatory oversight, lax environmental laws and human rights violations that attach to mining companies – and Myanmar Pongpipat is charged with all of the above. Myanmar, seeking to clean up the industry in Tanintharyi, went for the biggest offenders with the most complaints lodged against them first. The government temporarily suspended the Thai company’s license in June 2016 for noncompliance with mining regulations at the Heinda site, a move that idled 300 workers at the cost of a ton of lost tin each day. In April 2017, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand opened an official inquiry into Myanmar Pongpipat operations following a fact-finding mission to Heinda villages. Commission members say the Thai companies are taking their operations offshore to avoid the more expensive environmental measures required in Thailand, damaging other communities instead.
Environmental and health impacts[edit | edit source]
In Heinda, residents of the Myaung Pyo village say that Myanmar Pongpipat’s arrival in 1999 led to environmental destruction that has poisoned their land and water resources. Mine tailings that went directly into the Myaung Pyo River for years turned the water copper and red, and contaminated it with heavy metals. The tailing-tainted sediment built up and clogged the river, changing its flow – and leaving stretches of the river once used by villagers dried up and diverted. That also resulted in village flooding.
More than 500 people now must buy expensive bottled water, or use small amounts piped in from the mountains. In 2012, Myanmar Pongpipat’s mine tailing ponds overflowed in heavy rains and flooded Myaung Pyo homes. Contaminants leached into the soil and groundwater, damaging crop land and poisoning nearby wells: Researchers from Naresuan University found lead, arsenic and in some cases, up to 600 times higher than safe levels of manganese. Villagers complain of skin rashes when they shower or otherwise contact the water, and they have diarrhea and related GI ills if they drink or cook with it.
At some locations, villagers forced from their homes by mining companies have been threatened with “trespassing” if they refuse to leave, and are not properly compensated for their lands and livelihood. That is the case with Myanmar Pongpipat, where some villagers – among them an areca palm farmer who says his 13 acres were destroyed by waste water – have refused settlements they say are insultingly low-balled and have taken the company to court. In nearby Kanbauk, a child died in a flood of sludge and homes were destroyed by a 2015 tailings pond collapse at the government-owned Delco Mining operation. Some villagers there also won’t settle, but the firm and Myanmar law are not supportive. In the case of Myanmar Pongpipat, the company is registered in Bangkok but no name or contact surfaces. Villagers say there is no communication, and media have difficulty reaching anyone or get no comment.
Burmese grassroots activists[edit | edit source]
Nine people in Myaung Pyo filed a lawsuit against Myanmar Pongpipat in 2014, seeking compensation for their damages. The suit was dismissed in June 2016 on the grounds that under the nation’s law, it was not filed before time limitations expired. A September 2016 appeal was filed but villagers have not seen the remedy they seek – even as Myanmar Pongpipat plans a huge expansion, other companies and villagers are at odds, and new companies seek permits for profitable extractive operations in the region.
That’s mobilized a number of activist and watchdog groups in both Thailand and Myanmar. They include the Dawei Probono Lawyers Network, which offers public education on environmental law and civic participation as well as legal services. In May 2017, a journalist reporting the case was hit with a lawsuit.
Lawsuit against journalist[edit | edit source]
On March 1, 2017, a story about Myaung Pyo’s plight was published in The Nation, a multimedia news outlet based in Bangkok. Myanmar Pongpipat retaliated on March 20 with a criminal lawsuit against the organization and the reporter, Pratch Rujivanarom, for damaging the corporate reputation. Those charges include violations of provisions in Thailand’s Computer-related Crime Act, new legislation that is condemned by Human Rights Watch and other international rights advocates for its sweeping powers for government censorship and the stifling of critics and dissent under Thailand’s post-coup ruling junta.
The Reporters Without Borders organization and 50 other press freedom advocacy groups are calling for Myanmar Pongpipat to drop the lawsuit – and a possible five-year sentence – while other news outlets are independently confirming that what Pratch Rujivanarom reported is fair and accurate. A total of 56 Burmese NGOs, 24 Thai NGOs and 30 human rights activists have signed in support against the “chilling effect on the media and human rights defenders whose reporting, including on environmental and human rights issues, essentially serves the public interest.”