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February 19, 2015
Human Rights Abuses in Burmese Mining Industry
    by Robert Kropp

A new report from Amnesty International identifies companies from Canada and China that have profited from serious human rights abuses at the Monywa copper mine complex in Burma.

Regular readers of should recognize the name of Simon Billenness, who as a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has been instrumental in helping the organization craft an engagement policy that both addresses a faith-based approach to issues of environmental and social justice and enables a space for dialogue with corporations.

I've interviewed Simon on a number of occasions concerning UUA's shareowner engagement. I've also talked with him about the prospect of legitimate respect for human rights in Burma, where the replacement in 2011 of the former military regime with an elected government led to hopes for genuine reform. Simon is now the Executive Director of the US Campaign for Burma.

Simon recently called my attention to a newly published report from Amnesty International, entitled Open for Business? Corporate Crime and Abuses at Myanmar Copper Mine. According to the organization, the government of Burma has quite a ways to go before its citizens enjoy the freedom from abuse promised by its alleged liberalization.

“Foreign investment in the extractive sector has the potential to bring social and economic benefits to Myanmar,” the report states. “However, extractive industries also carry specific risks for human rights, in particular because these industries often require the expropriation of land and generate harmful waste materials that require careful management.”

Amnesty International prepared the report by means of a one-year investigation of the Monywa copper mines project, which began in 1978 as a government-owned entity. In 1996, the project became a joint venture with a Canadian mining company, and in 2010 ownership was transferred to another joint venture, this one between an entity owned by the Burmese government and a Chinese company. In keeping with the lack of transparency that Amnesty International found to be a constant feature of the project, details of the 2010 transfer of ownership have not been disclosed.

“The transfer of ownership of the Monywa project to a Chinese-Myanmar military partnership occurred at a time when US, EU and Canadian economic sanctions applied to all dealings with UMEHL (the Burmese-owned enterprise involved in the project) and the Myanmar military,” the report states. “Ivanhoe Mines (the Canadian former partner) has never explained how its former interest in the Monywa project ended up in the hands of the UMHEL-Wanbao Mining partnership.”

In fact, the report describes a “tangled web” of government and corporate players, and charges that in a number of cases breaches of international sanctions may well have occurred.

The report describes the project as one that was founded on forced evictions. In the 1990s, ore than five thousand acres of farmland were seized for the project; the farmers were “evicted from their lands without compensation,” the report found. According to one witness interviewed, about 13,000 people who lived in the villages surrounding the farmland were evicted.

Furthermore, the threat of further evictions still hang over the project. In December, 2014, more forced evictions led to clashes with police in which one protester was killed.

Also, the Burmese government “has failed to put in place safeguards to protect mine-affected communities from environmental pollution which can impact their rights to water and health,” the report charges. “The lack of adequate standards and technical capacity represents a very serious gap in protection for communities whose human rights will continue to be at risk until the government puts in place an adequate framework to protect people against pollution caused by businesses and provide remedies when negative impacts occur.”

“The Monywa project is a cautionary tale,” the report concludes. “Self-regulation by companies is not the answer.”

“The people living around Monwya and Letpadaung have suffered more than two decades of abuse linked to the business operations of Canadian, Myanmar and now Chinese corporations. Investment can help Myanmar, but this project benefits the companies while harming the people,” said Meghna Abraham, Amnesty International’s Corporate Crimes Researcher.


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