Foreign Companies Profit From Abuse-ridden Myanmar Mine Project: Rights Group

Canadian, Chinese firms have benefitted from a mining complex linked to forced evictions and pollution.

Security personnel protect workers erecting a fence on land confiscated for the Letpadaung copper mine project in northwestern Myanmar's Sagaing region, Dec. 23, 2014.

Foreign mining interests have profited from and sometimes colluded with Myanmar authorities in serious human rights abuses and illegal activity at a controversial copper mine project in the northern part of the Southeast Asian country, according to an investigative report by an international human rights group.

The report, issued Tuesday by London-based Amnesty International, describes how Canadian and Chinese mining companies have benefited financially from large-scale, forced evictions and serious pollution linked to the Monywa mining complex, which have destroyed local people’s livelihoods and exposed thousands of people to health risks.

“This report exposes how Myanmar offers the perfect storm of a rich natural resource base and a weak regulatory framework that has allowed foreign and Myanmar companies to engage in and profit from serious human rights abuses,” Amnesty said in a news release about the report.

“The Monywa project is a cautionary tale for the government of Myanmar and investors,” it said in the report titled “Open for Business? Corporate Crime and Abuses at Myanmar Copper Mine.”

“Foreign investment cannot benefit Myanmar when such contexts prevail.”

Amnesty’s report also noted that local police have used excessive force – including firing highly toxic and explosive white phosphorous at crowds -- to quell community protests at the Monywa project, made up of the Sabetaung and Kyisintaung (S&K) and Letpadaung copper mines, the group said.

Residents calling for a complete halt to the project have staged regular protests against it in recent years, resulting in frequent standoffs with police.

In 2012, police fired smoke bombs containing white phosphorous, injuring more than 100 people who were protesting against the negative impacts of the Letpadaung mine.

Another incident last December left one woman dead and several people injured when police fired on protestors.

Witnesses told RFA's Myanmar service that police fired guns during a new clash at Letpadaung this week.

Illegal activity

Amnesty International also said it had found evidence of illegal activity, including possible breaches of economic sanctions.  

Amnesty said international law was violated when thousands of people were forcibly evicted from the area in the 1990s to make way for Canadian mineral exploration and development company Ivanhoe Mines Ltd. (now Turquoise Hill Resources), which knew its investment would result in evictions, but did nothing about it.

Turquoise Hill, which has been owned by British-Australian mining conglomerate Rio Tinto since January 2012, told RFA that Rio Tinto had made divestment of Ivanhoe’s Myanmar operation a condition of investing in Ivanhoe in 2006 and that Ivanhoe’s handling of the Myanmar assets was compliant with relevant sanctions laws.

“Since Rio Tinto moved to majority ownership of Turquoise Hill in January 2012 and assumed management of the company in April 2012, the new Turquoise Hill management team has not become aware of any such facts or circumstances that would suggest any noncompliance,” Turquoise Hill spokesman Tony Shaffer said in a statement.

Ivanhoe through its Monywa investment sold copper to Myanmar military officers when economic sanctions against Myanmar were in force, Amnesty said.

The group accused the company of publicly lying about the sales, and said its subsidiary may have violated United Kingdom economic sanctions.

Amnesty noted that its investigation also found that Ivanhoe Mines and legal entities associated with it may have breached UK and Canadian economic sanctions when the company divested from Myanmar.

Furthermore, the report said the Myanmar military-owned conglomerate Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEHL) had illegally operated a sulfuric acid company linked to Monywa for six years, but when authorities later approved the factory, they took no punitive action against UMEHL.

“It [Ivanhoe] profited for more than a decade of copper mining, carried out in partnership with Myanmar’s military government, without attempting to address the thousands it left destitute,” Amnesty said in a press release about the report.

Wanbao’s operations

Amnesty went on to say that thousands of more evictions had occurred since 2011 to make way for the Letpadaung mine, operated by Chinese operator Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd. and UMEHL.

Wanbao was directly involved in forced evictions, and colluded with local authorities to provide machines to destroy local farmers’ crops, the group said.

Wanbao called Amnesty’s report “groundless” and said it strongly refuted “its wild allegations and unsubstantiated claims.”

“Wanbao Mining Ltd. vehemently denies sensationalist claims of collusion with authorities to use force against protestors and villagers,” said a statement the company issued Tuesday.

The company noted that Amnesty failed to involve it in its investigation, when it spent 15 days interviewing those affected by the project along with activists and lawyers.

“We believe had Amnesty involved us in its investigations, it would not have been making such wide and unsubstantiated claims which are factless,” the statement said.

The Amnesty report called on the Myanmar government to put in place measures to protect human rights, and on multinational companies and the governments of those companies to ensure that due diligence is carried out to international standards for all investment in the country.

“The people living around Monywa and Letpadaung have suffered more than two decades of abuse linked to the business operations of Canadian, Myanmar and now Chinese corporations,” said Meghna Abraham, Amnesty’s corporate crimes researcher, in the news release. “Investment can help Myanmar, but this project benefits the companies while harming the people."