Sackings, secrecy and a surprise visit: a quarry dispute turns nasty in Kayin State

A village administrator has been sacked for refusing to take legal action against villagers in an increasingly nasty dispute involving a Kayin State quarry, an Asian Development Bank-funded road project and a Border Guard Force.

By SU MYAT MON | FRONTIER

SAW HLA NGWE’S term as Lun Nya village tract administrator lasted less than three weeks. After being elected on April 1 with 295 votes to his opponent’s 249, he was told to attend a five-day training course for new administrators that began in Hpa-an on April 20.

“After only 15 minutes in the training room at Hpa-an I was handed a letter of dismissal and asked to leave,” Hla Ngwe told Frontier. He has been replaced by the man he beat in the April 1 election, Saw Aye Maung.

“Fifteen minutes of training,” Hla Ngwe added, with a laugh. “I’m a bit upset about it because I was hoping to work for the people.”

His firing is linked to a dispute in Lun Nya over a controversial quarry project that has pitted a local military leader and government officials against residents, many of whom oppose the project.

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Shortly before the training, Hla Ngwe had refused to file a complaint to police against residents accused of damaging a road leading to the quarry on Mt Lun Nya, near the state capital, Hpa-an. He was dismissed as administrator “because I did not do what the township administrator told me to do”, he said.

Although the letter said he had been relieved of his duties temporarily, it seems unlikely he will get his position back; he has also been charged under section 11 of the Ward and Village-Tract Administration Law for allegedly failing to follow orders.

“I don’t know exactly what I have been charged with,” he told Frontier on April 27, adding that he had appeared in court earlier that day.

Hla Ngwe said that shortly after his sacking, the Hpa-an township administrator, U Myo Min Htun, was transferred from the Kayin capital to Shan State.

Myo Min Htun declined to comment to Frontier, but the head of the General Administration Department for Hpa-an District, U San Maw, confirmed the transfer. San Maw declined to comment on Hla Ngwe’s sacking or the Lun Nya dispute.

A mountain of trouble

The quarry has been licensed by the military-controlled GAD to Chit Linn Myaing Toyota, a company owned by a Border Guard Force commander, Colonel Saw Chit Thu.

It is operated by state-owned China Road and Bridge Construction, which planned to source limestone from Mt Lun Nya to upgrade a 66.4-kilometre section of the Asian Highway between Eaindu in Hpa-an Township and neighbouring Kawkareik Township. CRBC won a Ministry of Construction tender for the upgrade in July 2016.

Quarrying began in late November. When Frontier visited the site, it observed workers in CRBC hard-hats and equipment bearing the company’s logo. We were prevented from entering the site by heavily armed soldiers from the Border Guard Force, which was formerly known as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army but came under Tatmadaw control in 2010.

After Frontier reported the following month that many residents opposed the project, the Asian Development Bank, which is funding the highway upgrade through a soft loan, said it would not allow CRBC to use the quarry unless it could show that operations will not harm the environment and livelihoods.

“ADB will not allow any materials produced by the quarry to be used for project activities unless an environment assessment is conducted and can prove that the quarry meets ADB’s safeguard requirements, and that people’s livelihoods would not be adversely affected,” the ADB told Frontier in an email at the time.

Under Myanmar’s mining law, most quarries do not require an environmental or social impact assessment, and are licensed by the GAD at the township level. However, government officials have told Frontier that the quarry operator is trying to get the necessary permits to comply with ADB requirements.

A Border Guard Force soldier walks near Lun Nya mountain (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

A Border Guard Force soldier walks near Lun Nya mountain (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

Kayin State Minister of Environment, Forestry, Mines, Transport and Communications Saw Pyi Thar declined to comment on the project, saying only that the ministry had given its remarks regarding the mining at Mt Lun Nya in line with Myanmar law.

Comment was also sought from the Kayin Minister of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation, Saw Myint Oo.

Saw Balawi, a close associate of Chit Thu, the Border Guard Force commander, declined to comment when contacted by phone, telling Frontier to instead come to Hpa-an.

The ADB did not respond to requests for comment this week, but in February told Frontier that even after the government grants an environmental certificate for the quarry, the operators would need to meet several other requirements before it can supply materials for the highway upgrade, including relevant impact assessments and a site-specific environmental management plan.

There would also be “strict implementation and monitoring” of adherence to these plans and ADB standards “during establishment, operation and abandonment/closure of the quarry”, as well as “consultations on an ongoing basis with affected persons to share information and to address concerns/issues related to quarry establishment and operation”.

While the operators scramble to meet ADB requirements, quarrying at Mt Lun Nya has continued, residents told Frontier last. Most of the stone produced is being trucked out of the site at night by CRBC, they added.

“We think taking the stone out at night is very suspicious,” said Hla Ngwe.

Road problems

The road from the Asia Highway to Mt Lun Nya is about a mile (1.6 kilometres) and passes land owned by 21 farmers. They say they built the road and it was upgraded by the quarry operator without their consent.

Hla Ngwe said Lun Nya village residents had opposed the upgrade from the outset because of concern it would cause flooding by preventing water from draining away from their fields.

Hla Ngwe said farmers affected by the road had told him of their plan to break the concrete road, and he informed the township administrator on April 18. Myo Min Htun then arranged a meeting between the villagers and an official from the GAD but it was inconclusive.

“It is their land and if they don’t agree with the road and want to fix the problem, what can I do?” Hla Ngwe said.

With the rainy season approaching, the farmers had damaged the road on April 19. At first, Hla Ngwe said, Myo Min Htun had told him to “let it be” – an instruction, seemingly, to let them proceed. But at about 4pm that day, Hla Ngwe said he received another call from Myo Min Htun, ordering him to stop the villagers and file charges against them under section 431 of the Penal Code, for destroying a public road. The charge carries a maximum prison term of five years.

“He repeatedly called to ask whether I had filed charges against the villagers and even threatened to take legal action against me for not following his orders, accusing me of siding with the villagers,” he said.

“That’s when I decided I would rather be punished than causing problems for my villagers; it sounds as if I did not follow the order but from my side … how can I take legal action against the villagers when they appointed me as their administrator?”

With Hla Ngwe refusing to cooperate, a district officer from the Road and Bridge Departmen filed a complaint to police. Eleven people from Lun Nya are facing charges. One of them, farmer Saw Nyein Phyu, quoted the district officer as saying he was asked by the Kayin State government to take action against the farmers.

He said the road at the centre of the dispute was not built by the government; villagers had made it themselves to conduct small-scale mining at Mt Lun Nya. But after Chit Linn Myaing and CRBC became involved, the road was upgraded, he said, and it had a negative effect on farming activities.

“We are waiting to receive a reply from the union government because we do not know how to respond after being sued,” said Nyein Phyu, referring to letters sent to the president and the state counsellor on April 21.

Surprise visit

On May 2, Lun Nya received some surprise visitors. Chit Thu, the Border Guard Force commander and Chit Lin Myaing Toyota owner, arrived at the village with officials from the Road and Bridge Department and a representative of CRBC.

Hla Ngwe said it was the first time residents had met the BGF commander; in their previous dealings with Chit Lin Myaing Toyota, they had held discussions with lower ranking company officials.

Workers wearing China Road and Bridge Construction helmets take a break at the Mount Lun Nya quarry. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

Workers wearing China Road and Bridge Construction helmets take a break at the Mount Lun Nya quarry. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

The purpose of the visit was not made clear to Lun Nya residents but they were allowed to ask three questions. Hla Ngwe said they asked how much stone would be produced at the quarry, how much has already been produced since operations began, and whether it was legal for the company to begin operations before conducting environmental and social impact assessments.

Chit Thu was only able to answer the first question. When he said the company would help the village get electricity from solar power, residents declined the offer.

“We don’t agree because we are still against the mining at Lun Nya,” Hla Ngwe said.

Nyein Phyu said he welcomed Chit Thu’s visit because it meant the commander was able to hear residents’ opinion.

“We won’t change our mind [about the quarry] because we don’t want this mountain to be completely destroyed,” he said.

Hla Ngwe added that residents were upset at the “injustice” of being charged over the road incident but had been afraid to ask more pointed questions.

“For example, we know that CRBC is secretly taking the stone away at night,” he said, “but we dare not say anything because Chit Lin Myaing has guns.”

TOP PHOTO: Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier

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