TANINTHARYI, Myanmar: The National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC) has opened an official enquiry into the Heinda tin mine in Myanmar’s Tanintharyi region for alleged human rights violations.
A delegation led by NHRC commissioner Tuenjai Deetes visited the area earlier this year to gather information on the mine, which is privately run by Thai-owned Myanmar Pongpipat Company.
The National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (wearing caps) on a visit to Myaung Pyo village. (Photo: Panu Wongcha-um)
The initial complaints were lodged by Thai and Myanmar civil society groups on behalf of local residents of Myaung Pyo village located downstream from the Heinda mine.
The area has been used for mining since the colonial era but according to locals, harmful effects on the environment were evident only from 1999 - after Myanmar Pongpipat Company took over mining operations.
FLOODING AND CONTAMINATED WATER
According to villagers, the mine has impacted the Myaung Pyo creek, the village’s main water source.
They said that more than 10 years ago, the creek ran clean and clear water and supported the fertile farmland along its way.
The polluted Myaung Pyo creek. (Photo: Panu Wongcha-um)
But it has now dried up. The water has become brown and stilled while its banks have been desiccated.
“Before the creek is lower than the village but now it is much higher.” said Ma Kai, 35, who has lived in the village since she was six-years-old. “This causes flooding during rainy seasons.”
Zaw Moe Aung, 36, told Channel NewsAsia that intensive mining has contaminated the village’s water wells.
“Water here cannot be use for bathing or for drinking,” he said, “I think there are unknown sediments in it.”
Thein Lwin, who is the deputy village chief, said that exposure to the water resulted in skin ailments, pointing to rashes on both of his legs.
The Myanmar Pongpipat Company refused to comment on the situation when contacted by Channel NewsAsia.
And communication has been a problem too for the villagers, some of whom said there has been not enough dialogue between them and the Thai company.
The firm did give money to the villagers after a massive flood in 2012 swept up sediment from the mine to the village, damaging many homes.
But locals said that the sum received did not match the damage inflicted.
Mining operation was briefly suspended in 2016 for violation of Myanmar’s mining and environmental laws but the operation resumed a few months later.
Thai and Myanmar flags at the Heinda mine office. (Photo: Panu Wongcha-um)
This development prompted Myanmar and Thai civil society groups to urge the NHRC to investigate the issue.
“Myanmar’s litigation system is not firm in taking action on environmental harm and human rights violation within the country’s administrative system,” said Thu Aye Mon of the Dawei Pro Bono Lawyer Network.
“So if we have another system to take action on human rights violation then it will be better for the community,” he added.
According to experts, Thai mining companies are attracted to areas like the Tanintharyi region because of its rich natural resources and lax regulations.
“There is very little tin mining in Thailand now because it is too expensive in terms of its impact on the ecosystem,” explained Harnnarong Yaowalert who is a member of the NHRC subcommittee on community rights.
Harnnarong explained that proper mining requires large investment, proper study, and consultation with the local community.
“Mining requires a massive transformation of the area so in the end it is a matter of choice for the locals,” said Harnnarong.
“Back in the 1980s, some investors wanted to mine for tin at the Patong beach in Phuket for example, but locals did not want to and look at the economic benefit from that decision now.”
The Heinda mine is not an isolated case - Thai businesses and state entities have been investing in mines, hydropower dams and factories in neighboring countries since the end of the Cold War.
And as Thai environmental standards toughen, these investments are on the rise.
“What we are seeing, and not just in Myanmar, are Thai investments at home and more now abroad that try to cut environmental costs,” said Pakpoom Withantinawat who is a member of the NHRC subcommittee on community rights.
“These investments burden the local community and harm the environment. It is irresponsible and lacks good governance,” Pakpoom added.
SETTING NEW BUSINESS STANDARDS
In May last year the Thai government tasked the NHRC with setting a new standard for Thai businesses abroad.
“Thai business overseas must follow the United Nations' guiding principles on business and human rights,” said NHRC Commissioner Tuenjai Deetes.
“Businesses should respect and protect human rights, and minimize negative impact on communities. If there is impact, then there must be fair compensation,” she added.
Apart from the Heinda mine, the Thai human rights body are also investigating alleged rights violations by another Thai company and state entities that invest in the creation of the Dawei Special Economic Zone which is also located in the Tanintharyi region.
Tuenjai Deetes (in white) speaking during a visit to Myaung Pyo village. (Photo: Panu Wongcha-um)
“The NHRC will not violate the sovereignty of Myanmar,” Tuenjai said. “So we will need to work closely with the Human Rights Commission of Myanmar and relevant local authorities as well to help the community affected by irresponsible investments.”
In Thailand, the NHRC plans to summon the owner of the Myanmar Pongpipat Company for questioning over allegations of rights abuses.
Tuenjai also wants to create a new framework for Thai businesses and investors under the United Nation’s guiding principles on business and human rights.
“We will also work closely with other government ministries, as well as Stock Exchange of Thailand, Thai Bankers Association, the Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of Thai Industry to set a new standard for Thai businesses operating abroad,” Tuenjai said.