Foreign firms and human rights abuses in Myanmar

Forced evictions and violence at copper mines in northern Myanmar continue after decades of profit-making, report says.

Villagers shout slogans during a protest against forced evictions and violence by security forces at a mine in northern Myanmar [AP]

Canadian and Chinese mining companies profited from human rights abuses at copper mines in Myanmar, according to a human rights group’s report released on Tuesday.

Foreign companies turned a blind eye to rights abuses and other illegal activity around the Monywa copper mine complex in the Southeast Asian nation, said Amnesty International, detailing numerous incidents spanning two decades including mass evictions, the use of “excessive force” by security forces, and “serious” pollution linked to the project.

Now under local and Chinese company control, the Monywa mine complex in northern Myanmar continues to draw protests – and violence.

Villagers, activists and Buddhist monks have been demonstrating for years at the mine, angry over repeated forced evictions and strong-arm tactics used by security forces. In December, a female protester was killed when security forces opened fire at the mine, the report said.

In 2012, the incendiary chemical weapon white phosphorus was allegedly used during a crackdown on demonstrators. The attack led to more than 100 wounded, including some with “horrific” burns.

U Teikkha Nyana, an elderly monk who was at the protest, suffered severe second and third degree burns. The monk recounted his experience to Amnesty in an interview last year.


“I saw fire all around. I tried to stand up and put out the fire. Another firebomb fell between my legs. I was on fire on my back and one arm, also my legs. It was very painful. There was a burning smell from the body like a barbecue,” U Teikkha Nyana said.

‘Open for business’

The 200-page report – titled “Open for Business? Corporate Crime and Abuses at Myanmar Copper Mines” – described evidence alleging Canadian mining company Ivanhoe Mines, now Turquoise Hill Resources, knew its investment in the mine would lead to the eviction of thousands of people in the 1990s. Yet, according to Amnesty, Ivanhoe did nothing to stop this.

“It profited from more than a decade of copper mining, carried out in partnership with Myanmar’s military government, without attempting to address the thousands left destitute,” the report said.

A Turquoise Hill Resources spokesman contacted by Al Jazeera did not address the accusations, and instead highlighted previous company statements related to the mine.

The Chinese firm Wanbao Mining, which continues to operate the mine with a military-owned local conglomerate, is “directly engaged in forced evictions, and colluded with the authorities”, Amnesty said.

The report comes at a time of the much-lauded opening up of Myanmar, which for decades had been a pariah state accused of large-scale human rights abuses that drew heavy international sanctions. The country, also known as Burma, moved towards democratic and economic reform in 2010, but those appear to be stalling.

Opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi warned late last year against “over-optimism”, and said no real reforms had taken place over the last two years.  

“Myanmar offers the perfect storm of a rich natural resource base, a weak legal system, and an economy dominated by military and special interests,” said Meghna Abraham, a corporate crimes researcher at Amnesty.

“The Monywa project is a cautionary tale on investment in Myanmar, where corporate projects are too often marked by abuses and communities are ripped apart in the pursuit of profit.”

Myanmar’s government did not respond to comment on the report.

Forced eviction business plan?

Although it was the government that carried out the evictions, Ivanhoe Mines and its local partner at the time should also be held responsible, the rights group said.

Farmers confront an earth mover, owned by the Chinese mining company in northwestern Myanmar in December [The Associated Press]
Farmers confront an earth mover, owned by the Chinese mining company in northwestern Myanmar in December [The Associated Press]

“Ivanhoe Mines, which could not have been unaware that people lived in the area and were heavily dependent on the land for livelihood, did not build in any safeguards to ensure that the land acquisition did not involve forced evictions and other human rights violations,” said the report. “On the contrary, they built a business operation on the foundations laid by the forced evictions.”

A villager who lived in the area at the time, who requested anonymity for safety reasons, told researchers about 13,000 people were forcibly evicted.

“People lost their farmland and were not given compensation. I lost 30 acres of land. My family had been there for generations,” the report quoted him as saying.

Two decades later, thousands of those displaced have yet to receive compensation.

Jessica Spanton from EarthRights International, an environmental and human rights NGO working in the region, told Al Jazeera the case of the Monywa mine was hardly unique.

“Domestic and international companies undertake projects throughout Myanmar that have negative social, environmental and human rights impacts on local people. Communities are not provided sufficient information about projects in the planning stages, nor are they consulted.

“As a result, communities are displaced from land on which they have lived and farmed for generations, often without adequate compensation to be able to rebuild their lives elsewhere, while others’ land or water are contaminated by harmful waste.”

Economic sanctions

While the Canadian company is no longer invested in the Monywa copper mine, the Amnesty report said when it divested from Myanmar in 2007, it did so in a “highly secretive process” that may have breached Canadian and UK economic sanctions.

A Turquoise Hill spokesman denied that was the case.

“It remains our understanding that the measures … put in place by Ivanhoe Mines on the disposal of the Myanmar asset were fully compliant with all applicable laws giving effect to sanctions,” he said.

Amnesty acknowledged the government of Myanmar “has taken some positive steps forward, and there are people within the government who are committed to the reform process”.

However, the group added “much more needs to be done if investment in Myanmar is to be an effective means of improving the lives of poorer people in the country”.

Ma Weiguo, executive vice president of Wanbao Mining, was quoted in the report as saying: “We care a great deal about our community, and we will continue doing all that is possible to reach out to them and help them maximise developmental returns.”

Source: Al Jazeera