Burmese women's rights activists wary of Canadian mining investment

Date of publication: 
18 March 2015

Representatives of Burmese women’s groups who were in Ottawa last week say that the Harper government should be wary of promoting mining investment in Myanmar, because it could further inflame ethnic conflict that they say continues—despite a Western perception that the country is improving.

Staff from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, including an environment specialist and natural resources management specialist, spent 13 days last October in the country also known as Burma exploring “if and how Canada’s development assistance program could support Burma’s sustainable development and poverty reduction efforts through sustainable management of the environment and natural resources, with a focus on the mining sector,” according to departmental spokesperson Caitlin Workman.

Representatives of the Canadian social justice group Inter-Pares and one of their partner groups working in Myanmar described the Oct. 19 to 31 trip as a “mining scoping mission” that involved DFATD staffers visiting and learning about mines in the country.

While Canadian mining companies don’t have a big presence in Myanmar now, the civil society reps were concerned by the thought of them soon digging up the country’s rich natural resources (jade, rubies, gold, copper, zinc, oil and gas are all thought to be available), and the Canadian government facilitating their work through aid projects.

After years of sanctions and limited ties to the military-dominated former British colony, Canada and other Western countries like the United States and Britain recently have torn down some of the walls and ventured back into the country. They were encouraged by democratic reforms starting in 2011 that saw the country’s long-ruling military junta step down and institute what some observers have described as a quasi-civilian government (there are still mandated military seats). Democracy activist and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was let out of house arrest and allowed to travel, while her party won a number of by-elections. The new government freed thousands of political prisoners.

Seeing the opportunity to re-engage with a country strategically located next door to China and near India, Canada eased sanctions in 2012, opened an embassy last year and placed the country on its revised list of 25 focus countries to which it funnels 90 percent of its bilateral aid. It also added Myanmar to its list of priority trading partners, and staffed the embassy with a resident ambassador, trade commissioner and development officer.

But the four Burmese women’s group representatives, in Ottawa last week with the support of Inter-Pares, put the damper on the widespread perception that the country has taken great strides towards democracy and human rights. They work in several of the country’s outlying states where armed factions of minority ethnic groups have been fighting government troops for decades. Fighting continues in some areas despite some separate temporary ceasefire deals with the government. And the women described continuing cases of sexual violence they say is perpetrated by soldiers against women in ethnic areas.

The Women’s League of Burma and its member organizations reported 104 cases of sexual violence against women and girls between 2010 and 2014, during the democratic reform period. The group said in a 2014 report that “The majority of these cases are linked to military offensives, and their widespread and systematic nature indicates a structural pattern. The use of sexual violence in conflict is a counter-insurgency strategy, and is closely tied to control over resource-rich ethnic areas.”

Given this fragile state, a foreign country or mining company starting a mine or even building a school in an conflict-prone ethnic area could spell trouble, the women argued. In speaking to MPs on the House subcommittee on international human rights on March 10, they recommended Canada take a conflict-sensitive approach to everything the government does in Myanmar, including any large investment projects.

Wahkushee Tenner, a member of the Karen Women’s Organization and the Women’s League of Burma, said the Karen ethnic community organization has “made it clear that unless there’s a sustainable peace process, we don’t want any rush of investment coming into our areas.”

Investment could bring foreign companies coming in to the area accompanied by security forces and the army.

“They’re always leading to more human rights violations. And especially for women, it’s not safe at all. And also outside, the company will bring in people from other areas where they don’t understand the culture of the ethnic people. That could lead to a lot of problems.”

Pippa Curwen, programs co-ordinator and founder of the Burma Relief Centre, argued that decisions to sell off natural resources are made by the central government, leaving local ethnic groups powerless.

“This is a key source of the conflict that’s going on,” she said in a March 11 interview at Inter-Pares’s Ottawa office.

When asked if the Canadian government’s scoping mission worries her, she shook her head yes.

Ms. Workman, the DFATD spokesperson, in an emailed response to questions said “Conflict sensitivity is an important consideration in activities.” She noted that the foreign and trade ministers had issued an open letter on doing business in Burma (the Canadian government calls the country by its historical name, Burma, not the name the military junta changed it to more recently, Myanmar). That letter says “it remains the responsibility of individual companies to ensure their activities are within legal parameters and beyond reproach with respect to integrity.”

Ms. Workman also mentioned the government’s corporate social responsibility rules, revised last year to include the threat of yanking government support from companies that flout the rules of good corporate citizenship abroad.

For its part, the government of Myanmar “highly appreciates and welcomes the assistance of Canada in developing [the] mining sector,” according to an emailed response to questions from Ambassador Hau Do Suan. “We are looking forward to more Canadian investment in the extractive industries of Myanmar.”

The developing country is still largely dependent on agriculture and extractive industries. He noted that the country is a candidate to the international Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative guidelines and the “concept of Corporate Social Responsibility-CSR is incorporated in every investment proposal.”

The ambassador rejected that the military has been involved in human rights abuses, calling the armed forces “highly disciplined and well trained,” and noting that criminals in the ranks would be dealt with in accordance with the military and/or criminal code.

For now, Canada is only dipping its toes back into Myanmar without a strong presence. David Tafel, CEO of the junior Vancouver-based mining company Centurion Minerals Ltd., said in a phone interview that he wasn’t aware of any other public Canadian companies trying to move forward with any mining concessions in Myanmar.

Centurion has applied for two concessions in Myanmar, which it hopes will yield gold, copper or silver deposits. The areas are now just bush, he said, and the company is still trying to wind its way through the bureaucratic approvals.

He was asked to take part in the scoping mission last fall, but ended up declining because his company was still in the initial stages of scoring concessions.

Mr. Tafel sympathized with the concern of the Burmese representatives that Canadians not unknowingly inflame conflict through development.

The concessions he’s eyeing are in an area away from the fighting between ethnic groups and the military, he said.

“We’ve said to ourselves, we’re going to stick to this area,” he said, adding that he’s not prepared to get involved in more difficult conflict-prone zones.

However, he said, he believed that foreign investment, in general, could be helpful to the country. If granted the concessions, he said, his company would hire locals and work to help better the economy.