Decades of military dictatorship in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, have given way in recent years to increased freedom of movement and of the press, along with a rush of foreign investment and tourist dollars. It is as though the country of roughly 50 million people is awakening from a slumber of sorts. Canadian mining dollars have also returned to the resource-rich republic after almost a decade of absence.
In Yangon, Myanmar’s economic capital and largest city, ATMs have been introduced for the first time. Now it is not uncommon to see tourists from Australia and other parts of the West browsing next to locals amid stalls in the city’s downtown markets.
Outside the city, and away from the areas that tourists frequent, many of the old ways remain.
The mining and resource extraction industry has been a particular source of friction in the rapidly developing country, as foreign and domestic companies snatch up large tracts of land to exploit. An ongoing dispute around the Letpadaung copper mine in the northern Sagaing region has led to protests, with a Chinese-financed mining company at their heart. After the lifting of sanctions by most Western countries in 2012, their corporations are also getting in on the action.
The bad old days
In Yamethin, a township about six hours north of Yangon, the police and local authorities still play by the old, bad rules, according to locals. Situated a few kilometers to the west of a large swath of land rich in mineral deposits, Yamethin is a gold mining town. Many people come from elsewhere to work in the area.
The last several months in Yamethin have seen tensions some attribute to the recent influx of foreign capital and investment. In June 2013, local authorities seized some 6,000 acres of land, on which thousands of small-scale miners ran their own operations. Miners who lost their livelihoods have not been offered any compensation or work. Those who have protested have been thrown in jail or paid by police to keep silent.
Ma Cho Cho San, who lives in Yangon, moved from the city of Mandalay to Yamethin with her husband Aung San Linn so he could work in the mines. They sold their property in the northern city and mortgaged their home to pay for a small mining business. Now Aung San Linn is one of 16 people still being held in jail and facing prison time under section 505(b) of the penal code, one of the many laws the government uses to suppress dissent in the country. In a report to Myanmar’s parliament, obtained by Ricochet, the mining company National Prosperity Gold Production Group says that Aung San Lin owes it almost 2.3 million Myanmar Kyat (about $2,600) because he continued to mine the land after authorities claimed the land for the company.
Land grabs in the new Myanmar
During an interview in a restaurant on the outskirts of Yangon, activist Wai Lu removed his jacket to reveal a tattoo on each arm: one bearing a portrait of General Aung San, a 1940s-era nation liberation hero and father of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and the other the flag of the formerly banned opposition party the National League for Democracy.
Wai Lu is active with the Yangon People Honorary Network. According to him, individuals (including Aung San Linn and 50 others) arrested during a Mar. 4 police raid on a Yamethin protest camp made a difficult choice. The police offered a 500,000 Kyat payment in exchange for signing an agreement not to protest further. Those facing jail time refused this settlement, which other protesters accepted.
This summer, since Wai Lu spoke to Ricochet for this story, he was sentenced to four months in Yangon’s Insein prison. He was jailed under the notorious section 18 law, which the government uses to restrict protest in the country.
A process known by locals as “land grabs” still plays a large role in the new Myanmar. The government, acting through the police or the military, seizes land and property from both the urban and rural poor and hands it over to developers. The land in Aung Sang Linn’s case has been given to the National Prosperity Gold Production Group, and its loss has put an enormous strain on the family, according to Ma Cho Cho San. She said she hopes that her husband is released and “family unity” is restored.
As a result of Aung San Linn’s incarceration and the loss of his income, the couple’s 17-year-old son has had to start driving a bicycle rickshaw to make ends meet. The pair have four children, ages eight to 25. The machines the family bought to run their operation, which now sit idly on land they cannot access, cost between 40 and 50 million Kyat ($40,000 to $50,000).
Depending on production and yield, a miner can earn roughly $300 per month, according to Yelay. That’s the name a 22-year-old Yamethin miner gave during an interview in Nay Pyi Taw, a city two hours south of Yamethin, for fear of police reprisals. His older brother ran a small mining company with 17 employees, of which Yelay was one. The brother is now also in the Yamethin jail on protest-related charges.
Police surveillance meant it would be unsafe to conduct an interview with a journalist in Yamethin, said Yelay, adding that police have planted marijuana in the homes of mining activists, using the drugs as a pretext for arrests.
Crony companies and due diligence
Despite the official end of the military dictatorship in 2012, local activists maintain that many of the country’s industries are controlled by Myanmar’s infamous “crony” companies, or companies with ties to the former military regime.
In this fluid situation, Vancouver-based mining company Centurion is laying down tracks. This past March, the company won a concession from the Myanmar government to pursue exploration on its second property, a nearly 700-square-kilometre patch just north of the area seized from Aung San Linn and his fellow miners. The concession allows for a five-year exploration period followed by a 25-year production period.
According to an emailed statement from Centurion CEO David Tafel, the company has no interest in operating a mine and is solely in the business of exploration.
A 2013 mining law in Burma says that any foreign company must enter into a partnership with a Myanmar company, which in turn must own at least 20 per cent of the new venture. Centurion has partnered with a Myanmar company called Crown Minerals. On any list of mysterious Myanmar companies, Crown would be near the top. The company has no website and no web presence, aside from a single-line entry on infomine.com. None of the sources interviewed for this story had ever heard of the company, including a member of parliament.
Of Centurion’s connection with Crown Minerals, Tafel wrote, “We are at the due diligence stage both geologically and logistically which includes attempting to ensure we are dealing with well-intentioned transparent local companies.” In his email he denied any connection with the evictions near Yamethin. “We have no knowledge of any such thing and this is not how we conduct our business.”
Doing more harm than good?
Many in the international human rights community feel that the sanctions against Myanmar were lifted too early.
A 2012 report, issued by a coalition of NGOs and labour organizations including the AFL-CIO and Human Rights Watch, and released in the wake of the lifting of economic sanctions, said that the U.S. “has long prioritized the promotion of human rights and democratic reform as the centerpiece of its foreign policy in Burma . . . Yet there is a serious risk that US investment could undermine rather than support that worthy aim.” The report went on to urge transparency on the part of foreign investors in the newly opened Myanmar.
An August 2013 report from the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre warns that workers engaged in labour organizing and collective workplace action still face many risks from both their employers and the authorities.
The new rush of Western investment in the country comes at a time of increasing Buddhist-nationalist violence and displacement of the Rohingya Muslim population, concentrated mostly in the western state of Rakhine. At the same time, Chinese investment in the extractive industry, as well as pipeline and dam construction, has exploded. Western investment is seen by some as providing a political and economic counterweight to China’s growing involvement in the country.
The arrival of Centurion marks the return of the Canadian mining industry to Myanmar after a seven-year absence.
The land from which Aung San Linn has been removed, which was the source of the protest that led to his imprisonment, had previously been worked by another Canadian mining giant, Ivanhoe, which was forced to pull out of Myanmar in 2007 because of bad publicity related to the repression of the military regime. Ivanhoe had also previously operated the Letpadaung copper mine, which is now Chinese financed and operated.
The National Prosperity Gold Production Group, for its part, speculates in its report to parliament that the protesters in Yamethin are “nothing but [an] economic attack upon our company” and that “there must be something behind [the] protesting workers.”
According to Ko Naing Nge Linn, the opposition National Democracy League MP who commissioned the report, it was “full of lies,” and the parliament has failed to bring the workers’ experiences to the halls of power. “It’s not fair. We could not hear worker views,” he said.
Most of the miners and activists interviewed for this story said they preferred Canadian or Western investment to Chinese investment, explaining they felt there is a more robust infrastructure for protecting the rights of workers when dealing with Western companies.
“We believe in foreign companies in terms of the respect for workers . . . but we want them to help our workers,” Ko Naing Nge Linn said.