11 Feb Rights watchdog urges halt to work at Monywa copper project

Written by Geoffrey Goddard Published in Latpadaung Read 3647 times
A general view of the copper mine in Sarlingyi township in Monywa, Sagaing Division, Myanmar on May 23, 2014. Photo: Bo Bo/Mizzima
A general view of the copper mine in Sarlingyi township in Monywa, Sagaing Division, Myanmar on May 23, 2014. Photo: Bo Bo/Mizzima

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International has called for work to be halted at the Letpadaung copper mine and urged a fresh, “more detailed” investigation into the use of white phosphorous against protesters there in 2012.

Amnesty’s call for a suspension of work at the controversial mine near Monywa until human rights and environmental concerns were resolved was included in a comprehensive 202-page report released at a media briefing in Bangkok on February 10.

The report, Open for Business? Corporate Crime and Abuses at Myanmar Copper Mine, also:

  • calls for investigations into the roles that Canadian and Chinese companies have played in the controversial project,
  • asks the Canadian and British governments to investigate whether a former joint venture partner in the mine, Canada’s Ivanhoe Mines and its related entities, breached economic sanctions against Myanmar,
  • urges the Myanmar government to provide adequate compensation and resettlement to those forcibly evicted from the mine site
  • calls on the Myanmar government to reform its legal framework to better protect the rights of mine affected communities, and
  • ridicules claims by the mine’s current joint venture partner, China’s Wanbao company, that the project has broad community support.

“Amnesty’s international investigation has revealed very serious human rights abuses involving Canadian, Chinese and Myanmar companies,” AI’s corporate crimes researcher, Meghna Abraham, told the briefing at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand.

Ms Abraham said Ivanhoe Mines, which operated the mine in a joint venture established in 1996 with state-owned Mining Enterprise No. 1, benefitted from forced evictions to clear the project site and still had a responsibility to compensate those affected.

She said the report contained new evidence uncovered by AI that Ivanhoe Mines – which decided to divest from Myanmar in 2007 and established a trust into which its Myanmar assets were transferred – may have breached British, European Union and Canadian economic sanctions on Myanmar.

“We did extensive document searches in various jurisdictions and those searches revealed that Ivanhoe Mines set up a trust in the British Virgin Islands, an overseas territory of the UK, to divest its Myanmar assets,” Ms Abraham said.

“The company used the territory’s secrecy provisions to keep details of the sale secret,” she said.

“Documents that have been obtained also reveal that the trust was not an independent third-party trust, as Ivanhoe Mines has claimed in public documents and filings, and all of this raises very serious concerns that economic sanctions might have been breached in the UK and Canada.

“Ivanhoe Mines also lied in its public filings and documents when it stated that the joint venture had sold all of the copper it produced in Myanmar to a Japanese trading company.

“Internal documents that AI has obtained, extracts of which are published in the report, reveal that this is simply not true,” she said, adding that the joint venture was selling copper to senior members of the Myanmar military “and related establishments”.

A statement issued at the briefing said the process by which assets were transferred from ME1-Ivanhoe Mines to the Myanmar-China partnership that took over the mine in 2010 have never been disclosed.

The report alleges that Myanmar Wanbao, a subsidiary of state-owned China North Industries Corporation, which operates the mine in the partnership with the military-owned conglomerate, Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd., has assisted the government in carrying out human rights abuses.

It accuses Myanmar Wanbao of having allowed riot police to use its premises on the night of November 28, 2012, to launch the attack on a protest camp the next morning that involved the use of white phosphorous munitions.

Monks as well as civilians were severely injured in the attack, which generated outrage in Myanmar and attracted international headlines.

“AI considers that Myanmar Wanbao provided material assistance to the police and was reckless to the consequences of this assistance; its role in the attack must be investigated as part of a full investigation into the event,” said Ms Abraham.

She said AI believed that the use of white phosphorous amounted to a breach of the prohibition of torture under international law because of the severe pain and suffering it inflicted.

Ms Abraham said a commission appointed by the government to investigate the incident and chaired by Daw Aung Sau Suu Kyi had made helpful recommendations.

“But on the issue of white phosphorous we believe there is a need for a more detailed comprehensive investigation which is properly resourced,” she said.

“It is an incredible failure on the part of the government that no official who was involved in the attack has been held accountable.”

Ms Abraham described as “misleading and incorrect” claims made in a statement issued by Myanmar Wanbao on December 22 last year after riot police shot dead a woman protesting with other villagers against the fencing of land they said they owned.

Myanmar Wanbao had claimed in the statement that it had broad community support for the project that it said was “its basis for expanding its working area to take over the land,” she said.

“It said there had been unprecedented door-to-door consultation for months and 70 percent of total land loss villagers, we understand that to mean people who will lose land for the project, consulted in 35 villages, support the project.

“It is simply not credible that the very same process being used to claim that 70 percent of people who will lose land for the project support the project,” she said, adding that there was yet to be genuine consultation among those affected by the project.

The AI report also raises concerns about a sulphuric acid factory established by UMEHL close to the project site and near a village and a school.

Ms Abraham said the commission chaired by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had found that the factory was established by UMEHL and had operated for six years without permission but had been allowed by the government to continue.

She also said an analysis of the environmental and social impact assessments for a new mining project at the site showed “very critical gaps”.

They included a failure to look at the cumulative impact of having two mines and a sulphuric acid factory so close to people, she said.

“The other big concern is that the government is allowing a new mine to proceed without resolving all the concerns that exist about the old one and this is a key community demand: existing environmental concerns must be addressed before a new larger mining operation is allowed to continue,” Ms Abraham said.

AI’s Asia-Pacific director, Richard Bennett, told the briefing that the report served as a cautionary tale about investing in Myanmar.

Mr Bennett said investment can only help the people of Myanmar if its government and other governments have “functioning safeguards in place to prevent profit-hungry corporates from abusing human rights”.

He said that “as long as the Myanmar government fails to protect people and while governments around the world continue to provide safe havens for abusive corporations there will be more cases like Monywa”.