After nearly half a century of isolation, Myanmar is undergoing a period of political and economic change. The transition from military dictatorship to quasi-civilian rule, which began in 2011, saw the formation in April 2016 of a new government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD).
Among other policy initiatives, the government has promised to extend further the economic reforms started by its predecessor and increase foreign investment. During this same period, and in response to the reform process, western governments have lifted most sanctions and other restrictions on companies wishing to do business in Myanmar. Following a meeting at the White House between Aung San Suu Kyi and President Barack Obama in September 2016, almost all remaining US sanctions were dropped.
One sector to which the government wants to attract new foreign investments is mining. Myanmar has vast mineral wealth but the industry is largely underdeveloped. Investment in the sector has the potential to bring social and economic benefits to Myanmar. However, extractive industries, such as large-scale mining, also carry specific risks for human rights. This is because they often require the expropriation of land and generate harmful waste materials that require careful management. The risks are not theoretical. Since 2014 Amnesty International has documented a range of human rights abuses and illegal activity linked to Myanmar’s largest mining project, at Monywa, in Sagaing Region.
The Monywa project consists of the Letpadaung, and the Sabetaung and Kyisintaung (S&K) copper mines, as well as the Moe Gyo sulphuric acid factory. Since 2010, the mines have been operated by China’s Wanbao Mining Ltd (Wanbao Mining), in a joint venture with the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL) and the state-owned company, Mining Enterprise 1 (ME1). UMEHL is owned by Myanmar’s military, and was an entity previously on the US sanctions list.
Following a year-long investigation in 2014-15, Amnesty International exposed a range of human rights abuses linked to the Monywa project including forced evictions, poor environmental management which put the health of the local population at risk, and the repression, sometimes brutal, of those who protested against the mines. The research resulted in the February 2015 report, Open for Business? Corporate Crimes and Abuses at Myanmar Copper Mine (hereinafter referred to as ‘Open for Business?’).
Wanbao Mining operates the Letpadaung Mine through its subsidiary Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper Limited (Myanmar Wanbao). In May 2016, Myanmar Wanbao announced that the Letpadaung mine had begun producing copper for the first time, sparking new protests by villagers. In June 2016, Amnesty International sent researchers to Monywa again to assess whether anything had improved, or if people remained at risk of human rights abuses. This follow-up investigation found that little has changed and that serious human rights concerns regarding the Letpadaung mine have not been addressed.
Thousands remain at risk of forced evictions
Hundreds of families living in the environs of the mine continue to face forced evictions from their homes and/or their farmland. Myanmar Wanbao says it needs to expand the mine’s perimeter by a further two thousand acres. The company claims to have conducted genuine consultations with all affected people, but this is not the case. For example, residents of four villages have been excluded from consultations altogether, even though they are among the worst affected. Against their wishes, they face the loss of their farms and resettlement to a new location
Ongoing environmental management failures and risks to health and livelihoods
Myanmar Wanbao’s failure to undertake an adequate environmental assessment of the Letpadaung mine is putting the safety of the neighbouring communities at risk. The risks are extremely serious as the giant mine is in a region prone to both earthquakes and floods. If either of these strike the mine, they could result in contaminated waste spreading into the surrounding environment. Myanmar Wanbao has acknowledged that this could have a “catastrophic” impact. These risks were underlined when, during heavy flooding in August 2015, flood waters entered the mine area even though it was protected by an embankment. In this instance, Myanmar Wanbao said it was able to prevent any waste material from leaving the site, but it has not provided evidence to support this statement.
Another incident raises further serious questions about the management of the mine. Amnesty International has documented how the company failed to prevent the discharge of potentially hazardous waste material from the mine, starting from November 2015. That was when farmers in Wet Hme village, some 500 meters from the mine, saw that its perimeter drain had overflowed. Despite informing the local authorities and Myanmar Wanbao within ten days of noticing the spill, the liquid continued to run into their land for weeks, one of the farmers told Amnesty International. He described the damage that the spill caused to the wheat and beans that they were growing:
“Every crop perished. Everything died. Every place where the water got the crops perished. They perished steadily, taking around ten days. First the crops wilted and then died.”
In June 2016, Amnesty International researchers took samples of soil from two places where villagers described the spill as happening. These samples were tested at the Greenpeace laboratory at Exeter University, in the UK. The results were then analysed by an environmental scientist, who concluded that it was “highly-probable” that the liquid was contaminated.
“The soil samples indicate that the waste water in the drain at the time of the spill had elevated levels of various metals and in particular arsenic, copper and lead. This indicates that contamination of the water with mine – derived contaminants is highly probable.”
Neither the government nor Myanmar Wanbao has explained to the farmers what caused the spill, nor provided them with any information about the contents of the waste water, nor whether it posed any health risks. There has been no clean-up and no compensation for the loss of crops.
Repression of peaceful protests
Many people in the communities surrounding the Monywa project remain deeply unhappy with how the mines are managed. The loss of their lands has placed their agricultural livelihoods, and their futures, at risk.
They are fearful of the damage that they believe is being done to the environment and the health of their families. The government has promised to resolve differences between the communities and the mining companies. Yet villagers and activists who are opposed to the Monywa project continue to face arrest and harassment. Myanmar Wanbao and the authorities continue to use Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. This provision allows magistrates to restrict access to particular designated areas. Research for Amnesty International’s 2015 report found that the authorities used it to block access to areas around the two mines and charge villagers who protest against the companies. In 2016, Amnesty International found similar misuse. For example three villagers were convicted of trespass after taking part in a protest outside the main gate of the S&K mine.
Conclusion and recommendations
Amnesty International continues to call on the government of Myanmar to suspend the mine’s operations until the human rights and environmental concerns are dealt with and effective processes are put in place to prevent further abuse.
In particular, the government needs to ensure that Myanmar Wanbao does not carry out any more evictions of people from their homes or land until all procedural safeguards required under international human rights law have been put in place. It must require Myanmar Wanbao and its joint venture partners to address the shortcomings in their management of environmental risks, including through sharing final designs of key infrastructure for public scrutiny and undertaking a comprehensive assessment of the environmental, social and human rights impacts in consultation with all affected people.
Wanbao Mining and UMEHL should investigate the cause and impact of the spill of waste liquid at Wet Hme village in 2015, and the impact of the floods of 2015, and make the findings public. The two operating companies should make a public commitment to suspend plans for extending the project area and construction for the Letpadaung mine until human rights and environmental concerns are resolved in genuine consultation with affected communities.
More broadly, the Myanmar government needs to strengthen the legal framework to improve the regulation of large projects, such as mines, and put in place an adequate framework for land acquisition that is based on international standards on the right to adequate housing and the prohibition of forced evictions. Both the government of Myanmar and Myanmar Wanbao must also ensure an effective remedy for the human rights abuses that people there have already suffered.
The Monywa project is not an isolated case of human rights abuses involving corporations in Myanmar. Activists and NGOs have highlighted other deeply troubling examples which expose both the systemic weaknesses in Myanmar’s ability to regulate companies and protect affected communities, as well as foreign corporations’ apparent willingness to take advantage of this context.
Foreign corporations doing business, or planning to do business, in Myanmar have a responsibility to ensure that their investments do not cause or contribute to human rights abuses. A critical first step is conducting human rights due diligence on planned business activities in Myanmar in line with international standards on business and human rights. The governments of foreign companies investing in Myanmar, including China, must require their companies to undertake due diligence prior to investing or undertaking business operations in Myanmar.