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Over a decade ago, the Myaung Pyo creek in Burma’s Tenasserim Division was clean and crystal clear — a steady, trickling life source. The creek, running alongside a stretch of lush farmland, was relied on by villagers for various daily tasks such as watering crops.
Today the waterway is barely recognisable — its murky, shallow water is awash in sediment. Nearby plantations, mainly for producing betel palms, also look like they are wilting.
“It’s so sad that the creek is gone,” said Zaw Moe Aung, a Myaung Pyo villager. “The villagers are very attached to the river. We used it to drink, water plants and cook.”
The stream began to visibly dry up in the 1990s after Heinda Tin Mine, which is run by Thai-owned Myanmar Pongpipat Co, set up shop in the area.
Villagers say the mine produced a glut of tailings that contaminated the creek, not only rendering the water unclean but also destroying arable land with waste sediment pile-ups.
But Heinda Tin Mine precedes Myanmar Pongpipat’s presence, having been operating since 1963. Back when the mine began, villagers say the impact of mining on the landscape was far less noticeable because the extraction methods were less harmful.
Srisuwan Kuankajorn, director of the non-profit Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA), says there has been a rise in Thai investors in Southeast Asian countries.
“The increase [in Thai investors] is taking place as Thailand becomes more costly for investors,” says Mr Srisuwan. “There is also an increasing number of environmental activists. Environmental laws have become stricter. Meanwhile, neighbouring countries are keen to bring in investors to reap various economic benefits.”
This trend of overseas investment has been met with growing concerns about investors disregarding the negative implications for human rights and the environment in their business practices.
A statement titled “Thailand’s Extraterritorial Obligations in Transboundary Investments” was composed by several NGOs, civil society groups and various community networks in Thailand and Southeast Asia to address how this trend of investment has given rise to a lack of accountability for human rights and environmental side effects.
Mining for trouble
“A few years after Myanmar Pongpipat Company entered the scene, problems started to emerge,” said Zaw Moe Aung, who showed Bangkok Post’s Spectrum team around the village to see the damage. The area he describes as his once precious farmland is now covered in piles of sediment.
“I still do gardening for a living as I want to keep living here,” said Zaw Moe Aung. “But now I have less land and less income since a much smaller sample of plants can be grown. The quality of soil and water is no longer adequate for rice and vegetables to grow.”
Kyin Za, a fellow villager, has a well at her family home, containing water for various uses. But it’s been a while since they have used the water — they fear the quality is too poor to consume.
“Children who used the well water to wash themselves got rashes,” she says. “The water also has an unpleasant smell and some leftover sediment. We can no longer use it.”
She showed us a bowl used to scoop up the well water stained in a rusty colour.
“Now we have to use piped water which usually comes in limited supply. But not every house has access to pipe water and sometimes we need to buy bottled drinking water too,” Kyin Za added.
Environmental engineers from Thailand’s Naraesuan University visited Myaung Pyo in 2015 to collect water samples from the creek and villagers’ wells for testing. The results showed that the water had high levels of the chemical manganese, which can yield toxic effects. The turbidity — the water’s clarity — was also determined to be abnormally high due to excess iron. The issue with water cleanliness worsened in 2012 when torrential rain led mine tailings to overflow into the village. Sediment was swept up in the rain and scattered all over people’s land. The villagers say they are still suffering from the effects of the storm today.
“Before the flood, there was a hidden space under our house that was wide enough to park a motorcycle,” Kyin Za says, showing us the now narrow space. Its height falls only slightly above her waist due to the sediment. Similar cases have been noted in other households.
Another villager, Daw Tin Hla, says that her ability to practise her livelihood has changed drastically. The quality of the soil and water is so poor that she can no longer make a living as a farmer. Her three daughters have been forced to seek work in Thailand to sustain the family.
After the flood, the villagers asked the company to take responsibility for the damage. The company responded to the request by granting them a small sum of money. According to the villagers, however, it wasn’t nearly enough to cover the scope of the damage.
The villagers further demanded the company pursue more effective mine tailing management strategies. The only safety measure they have taken up since has been to set up a mud wall.
Villagers say they have been shut out from any proper dialogue and engagement.
Last year they thought they had experienced a solid victory when the mine operation was temporarily suspended for violating mining and environmental laws, leading to pollution. It was reopened a few months later, however.
Kriangkrai Chavaltanpipat, managing director of Myanmar Pongpipat Co, said the company gave money to villagers after the flood as a part of their corporate social responsibility package. He rejected accusations that the company had caused the water contamination.
“Our environmental policy complies with Burma’s regulation laws,” he insisted.
“Even if we stopped operating, the environmental problems would exist. The government allowed us to resume our operation because they believe that the problems did not come from us. These happen naturally.
“There are also other mines operating in the area. Also, we have recently gone from having four to seven sediment ponds as well as installing water treatment systems to reuse in the production line as safety measures.
“Only treated water can be released into nature. The water quality is checked every time before we release it into the creek.”
As it stands, the villagers have asked the company to fulfill three formal requests: to help secure a better future for the village; to restore clean water and rehabilitate the river; and to ensure that waste products do not leak into the surrounding environment again.
“I don’t entirely oppose the mine. It can definitely be run — just so long as villagers are not being affected by it,” said Zaw Moe Aung.
Another villager, Myat Htay, once worked as a truck driver for the mine but is now turning his back on the business.
“The mine seemed promising, providing us with jobs at first. But now I think that the negative effects we get are just not worth it,” he said.
Zoming in on development
“Who wouldn’t want development?” asks Than Tun, a Dawei resident. “When I first learned about the Dawei Special Economic Zone (DSEZ), I was excited about it. But the more I got to know the plan in detail, the more concerned I became.”
Tin Shwe, a Ngapidat villager, said that first hearing about the DSEZ was like a dream.
“We were promised more jobs for locals,” said Tin Shwe. “But the construction workers don’t even get good wages. So the majority of us barely benefit from the business. We also have to put up with the costs of the environmental damage.”
Complaints about the DSEZ keep piling up. It has been blamed for pebbles from quarrying toppling into people’s farmland, land eviction cases involving unfair compensation, the uncertainty of relocation plans and a general lack of public engagement.
Located in southeastern Burma by the Andaman Sea, Dawei, or Tavoy, is set to be a strategic channel for connecting with trade partners around the South China Sea. The DSEZ is based in the western part of Dawei, covering an area of 196 square kilometres, scaled down from the original 250 sq km planned. It’s expected to be one of the biggest industrial parks in Southeast Asia.
About 21 sq km have already been built up. However, opposition from locals and civic groups, as well as various capital problems, have stalled the project’s progress.
DSEZ is a shared project between the Thai and Burmese governments, initiated in 2008. Last year Japan signed on to the project, which investors suspect will help resume the efforts.
According to a report titled “Voices From the Ground” by the Dawei Development Association (DDA), 20 to 36 villages, home to between 22,000 to 43,000 people, have to be relocated due to DSEZ developments.
Agriculture is the main livelihood in the region, followed by fishing. The loss of arable area and access to natural resources is thus a source of major concern.
Several measures have already taken place to prepare the area for developers. Coastal mangrove forests have been cleared, while some fishing villages have been dismantled. Villagers say they haven’t received any formal compensation for these moves
Spectrum contacted Italian-Thai Development Plc (ITD), the project’s main developer, but ITD executives declined to respond to any questions. They said they plan to release the results of the project’s environmental impact assessment to the public in the next few months.
Residents in Ka Lone Htar recently learned they could be relocated due to DSEZ plans to turn their village into a reservoir with a capacity of 627 million cubic metres.
“There were people who surveyed the area for dam construction but none of us residents knew about it in advance,” said the abbot of a Ka Lone Htar temple.
Locals voiced strong opposition to the dam. It hasn’t been built yet, but the dam border has already been drawn.
Road construction is another issue. Some villagers’ land has been swept aside to make room for roadways.
“The trees were cut down but developers didn’t end up doing anything with the cleared area,” claimed one villager. “They have also cut more trees in other places. It’s like they don’t have any clear plan they are working with. The issue of compensation also remains very unresolved.”
Saw Keh Doh, a Karen leader from Tha BYU Chuang, says he’s seen backhoes entering his village several times, but nobody has been told what plans are in motion.
“I feel like our rights are being threatened,” said Saw Keh Doh. “We were born into this country but our voices haven’t been heard.”
He adds the government has a responsibility to keep residents aware of developments.
The lack of human rights and environment-related law means that businesses have a lot of leeway in their development plans.
Residents have responded by building up a communal identity, developing stronger education curricula and promoting tourism in the area.
“Myanmar may not have great development capacity, but we want those who come and bring development to our country to care about us the people,” said Tin Shwe, a villager from the nearby Ngapidat village.
“I’m very worried about the negative impact that these developments could have on our lives. But at this moment I have no ideas for dealing with them except trying to take care of it myself.”
Thant Zin, a leader from the Dawei civic group, said Dawei may be more suited to another kind of development model.
“I think we could have another kind of development here,” said Thant Zin. “For example, we can establish more sustainable tourism by taking advantage of our beautiful beach. We want the government to be thinking about sustainable development rather than just economic benefits.”
Last month the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC) visited the DSEZ and Heinda Tin Mine to examine claims from civil society organisations in both Thailand and Burma that residents were being exploited by Thai investors and their rights were being violated.
NHRC commissioner Tuenjai Deetes said a sense of intention and understanding between Thai investors and local people needed to be established.
This was the NHRC’s second visit to the area, a follow-up to the 2013 visit. The first visit’s report led to a cabinet resolution recommending that various state authorities produce legal mechanisms to ensure the private sector respects human rights in developing DSEZ Plans. These included the Ministry of Commerce, the Office of National Economic and Social Development Board, and the Stock Exchange of Thailand.
“It’s been almost a year since the cabinet resolution was launched,” said Ms Tuenjai. “The NHRC will now develop more reports to submit policy recommendations to the government that comply with the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights which includes protection, respect and a solution framework.”
However, the NHRC doesn’t have the authority to issue laws. It can only offer advice and suggestions to the cabinet in determining a feasible solution for all parties.
“Investors have to study the impact that this development could really have on communities,” said Ms Tuenjai. “Then an effective solution is needed. We need strong preventive measures so that rights infringements do not occur.
“From the cases we’ve seen, it’s quite obvious that people near Heinda Tin Mine have been affected by these business practices. However, we’ll have to follow up to these cases by asking the company to provide more specific information about its practices.”
The NHRC commissioner also added that she will seek collaboration with NHRC Myanmar. Civic groups have yet to submit any petition to NHRC Myanmar.
Aye Mon Thu, a spokesperson for the Dawei Pro Bono Lawyer Network, said human rights must be protected.
“Myanmar doesn’t have laws on human rights but it’s a basic thing that people should care about,” she said.
Aye Mon Thu also called upon the Thai government and investors to follow the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and suggested that business people listen to the community’s point of view.
Thant Zin, the coordinator of the Dawei Development Association, shared a similar opinion, saying he thinks that public engagement is one of the most important things when it comes to development.
“As Thailand and Myanmar are neighbouring countries, it’s very important for us to support each other,” said Thant Zin. “The current [DSEZ] investment project has shown there is a will to create a strong relationship between our governments. I think that good relationships between local people and business people are also possible.”
This article was originally published in the Bangkok Post’s Spectrum section on 19 march 2017.