A poor community cites decades of land dispossession and environmental degradation in their opposition to a Thai-operated tin mine in rural Dawei Township.
By WIN ZAR NI AUNG and YE HTUT WIN | FRONTIER
ON THE BANKS of a narrow stream in rural Tanintharyi Region, a faded blue sign points the way to Myaung Phyo village. Walking into the village, Frontier could see dying coconut trees lining the main street – a symptom, locals said, of groundwater contamination.
Myaung Phyo is located 43 kilometres from Dawei, the capital of Tanintharyi Region, in Myitta sub-township. Close by is the Heinda tin mine, one of Myanmar’s oldest. Local residents say that Myaung Phyo has borne the brunt of the extensive environmental damage caused by the mine.
The dispute between the community and the mine operators goes back several decades. In 1983, about 500 village residents were relocated to make way for the mine. The only compensation they received were plots of land smaller than those they were forced to vacate, according to a report by the Dawei Pro Bono Lawyers Network.
Ma Phyu Phyu Khaing was one of those displaced.
“The situation made us very sad. The village was very peaceful and it had big trees that gave us shade. Neighbouring villages really liked it, because it was very cool. But one side of the village is now dead,” she said.
In 2008, heavy rainfall caused flooding that saw the mine’s sediment pools overflow and mining waste wash into the village, contaminating the water supply and destroying plantations and homes, residents say. Further flooding occurred in 2012, damaging about 20 acres of plantations as well as 27 homes.
Myaung Phyo resident Daw Khin San said that, because of the mine, many such as herself do not have access to clean water in the village.
“All homes have wells, but we can’t use them anymore because of contamination. We have to collect water from a well that is more than two furlongs [half a kilometre] from home. We use this water for drinking, washing and other domestic uses every day,” she said.
The Heinda mine was established in the 1920s during British colonial rule, as part of a cluster of tin mines close to Dawei, known then as Tavoy. However, much of the tin and tungsten mining infrastructure was destroyed during World War Two. The industry was nationalised under the military-backed, socialist regime of General Ne Win, which took over in 1962.
After decades of low output under the Ministry of Mines, in 1999 Thai company Myanmar Pongpipat was granted permission to explore the mine, in partnership with the state-owned No.2 Mining Enterprise, the former holding 65 percent and the latter 35 pc of the venture.
The mine covers 247 acres within an 2,110-acre concession and includes three open-pit mines that produce between 400 and 500 tonnes of tin and tungsten each year, much of which is then exported for processing in China, Thailand and Malaysia, typically earning more than US$4 million per year.
Water tests commissioned in 2013 and 2014 by the Dawei Pro Bono Lawyers Network found that lead and arsenic toxicity levels were significantly beyond the safe upper limits recommended by the World Health Organization for drinking water. The network’s report cited significant health risks, especially for children.
Another Myaung Pyo resident, Daw Aye, said that the company had promised government officials that they would address the water contamination, but never took any action.
The Tanintharyi Region government has suspended the company’s mining activities three times since June 2016, for periods ranging from three weeks to several months, because of environmental concerns. The most recent suspension was in February 2018, but work was allowed to resume in October.
Nine residents filed a lawsuit in 2014 at the Dawei District Court against the company for damages caused by the loss of livelihood, but this and subsequent appeals at the Tanintharyi Region High Court and the Union Supreme Court were all rejected.
Villagers say that the company had offered them compensation but the sums were too small for them to accept. Some residents whose lands were contaminated by the mine’s runoff were provided with new land, the villagers said. But not everyone accepted it, with some deciding to move to Thailand to seek work instead.
Residents also submitted a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand in February 2017. The NHRCT said that same month that they would submit a complaint to the Thai government on the villagers’ behalf, but the villagers were not aware of anything having been done in response.
Representatives for Myanmar Pongpipat could not be reached for comment.
U Thein Soe, deputy permanent secretary at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, told Frontier that the ministry’s Environmental Conservation Department and the No.2 Mining Enterprise were supervising the mine to ensure Myanmar Pongpipat was following an environmental management plan the company had commissioned, even though his department had yet to formally approve the plan. He added that data on sediment from the mine was reported to Nay Pyi Taw once a week.
Asked about the flooding risks, Thein Soe said it was difficult to “prevent a natural disaster” but added that the situation had “improved” since the government began monitoring mine activities, with the sediment pond now less prone to overflowing.
U Ye Aung, a member of a community group formed to monitor the mine at the request of the regional government, told Frontier, “They want to have their creek, good water and trees back, and regain their lost lifestyle. Now, they feel like they, the villagers, don’t matter to the government.”
Ye Aung said the monitoring group had submitted three letters to the regional government, calling on it to punish the company for breaching its environmental commitments.
Tanintharyi Region Minister for Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation U Myint Maung said the current contract for the mine expires in June. He said the regional government had urged the Union government to open a tender for the new contract and consult independent experts over the terms to set, but that the Union government had asked them to extend the contract for Myanmar Pongpipat for another five years.
Daw Aye said she wanted the company to leave.
“I’m always sad when I see the [dying] trees. We don’t want the company to be given an extension. If they do, things will only get worse,” she said.