Location
  • Kayah

Government Pressure in Kayah State

Fuels Black Market Tin Trade

Images by
Yu Yu Myint Than
Text by
Yu Yu Myint Than and Matt Grace
NOVEMBER 2017, MAWCHI, Kayah State — At 1pm the driver who has agreed to take me to Mawchi calls to postpone until 4pm. At 6pm he calls to cancel; “Sorry, the trip is cancelled today because we don't have enough goods to transport to Mawchi.”

One of my fellow passengers tells me that his wife is pregnant and he needs to get to Mawchi tonight, so our small group of passengers pool together the 85,000 Myanmar Kyat (around $60 USD) that the driver demands for the journey, more than five times the amount we originally agreed.

When questioned he explains that he cannot transport passengers only; the real income comes from transporting mining materials to and from the tin mines in the hills of Kayah State and he will lose money if he goes without a full car of goods.

Yu Yu Myint Than/NRGI
We leave Kayah State capital Loikaw at around 6.30pm, eventually passing though a police checkpoint as we enter Hpasawng on the banks of the Salween River. As we leave the town we pass cars coming in the opposite direction - at every new set of headlights our driver calls out “They are fucking checking everything!” He explains to me that the majority of cars coming down from Mawchi will be carrying tin to sell on the black market. The police checkpoints never last more than a few hours so the cars he is warning will wait at the side of the road until it is safe to continue.

U Saw Daniel, a small private tin mine owner, tells me; “We have to sell on the black market otherwise we cannot survive. The price given by the government is too low but they want the best quality tin. We cannot avoid selling some amount of tin to the government but it’s not fair. The government wants the best quality but doesn't want to pay a fair price.”

Yu Yu Myint Than/NRGI
After passing through Hpasawng the road degrades to little more than a bumpy, cracked track. It surprises me to see the road in such poor condition as we head into Mawchi – during the 112 years that the British mined the area during colonial occupation it became known as ‘Little England’. In the early years of the second world war Mawchi was a site of international influence, producing 17.4% of global output of tungsten.
Yu Yu Myint Than/NRGI
It is 142km from Loikaw to Mawchi, but the condition of the road means we don't arrive until nearly midnight. Our car drops us at Saethongon, one of 57 villages in the Mawchi area. It is pitch black but I see people coming towards us with flashlights. They are coming to collect whatever materials our driver has brought from Loikaw.
Yu Yu Myint Than/NRGI
The following day as I walk to Taung Paw village the thin, cracked roads of Saethongon become even more perilous - only one or two feet wide and heavily cracked, a consequence of a landslide in 2015 which left at least 28 people dead and displaced more than 500.

Daw Margret Sein, a medic from Saethongon, tells me about the day the landslide hit: “We had some small landslides before, but 2015 was so big and so dangerous. I still remember how I had to run. I dared not look behind. I just had to run and run.” Margret explains that the tunnels of work sites No. 2, 3, 4 and 5 all run underneath houses in the area. There is also little regulation on the use of explosives in the mines, both of which were major factors contributing to the devastation of the landslide.

Yu Yu Myint Than/NRGI
U Ehdoe, who lives in Taung Baw Village, tells me; “The Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL – run by the Myanmar military) control the supply of dynamite because all mining products must be bought and sold through them. But they pay like shit. So the mine owner has to buy dynamite from the black market so that he can then sell some tin on the black market where he can get a fair price. But the dynamite on the black market is not standard and is dangerous.”
Yu Yu Myint Than/NRGI
The company operating the Mawchi mine is the Kayah State Mining Product Company (KMPC). The company started operating the mines in 1991 in joint cooperation with the government but has now taken over operations and is working under the control of UMEHL and No.2 Mining Enterprise (ME2) under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation (MONREC). All mineral resources and materials are controlled by these groups.

U Ehdoe says; “You can see clearly that it’s unfair. This is the land we have owned for generations. They are the broker and the thief. We, who are the owners, cannot sell our product freely but the company can sell anywhere they like. Is it fair?”

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Ill feelingThe mining company belongs to the Karenni National Solidarity Organization, also known as “Kyae Phyu” organization, which splintered from the Karenni National Progessive Party in 2002 (Kayah State was formerly known as Karenni State).

One local youth leader who didn't want to be named says, “In the olden days of government control at the mine site at least we could criticize or report problems. Now it is our own people, a Karenni organization is involved and we are hesitant to talk freely. I don’t think that’s a good thing. It’s sad to see people from our own community bully us.”

Yu Yu Myint Than/NRGI
He adds “The company exploit the villagers and migrant workers. If something happens there is a lack of accountability. There are lots of workers who have died of lung cancer or TB. My own uncle died at the age of 36. He worked as a front line miner (a local term for the person who has to lay explosives and drill at the head of the mine). Front line people are the people who are mostly hurt.'

There are no safety regulations imposed by the company to support the miners who work without helmets, some wearing slippers, and frequently without facemasks. Miners earn between 4,000 kyats (around $3 USD) and 20,000 kyats (around $15 USD) per day and only front line miners get the highest wages.

Yu Yu Myint Than/NRGI
Daw Margret says there are few government medics or midwives in the area. Most of them work in the town and there is no medic ready to help in the village if something happens. “That’s why I came back to Mawchi after my retirement - to contribute to my people with what I have learnt.” She also runs a free medical service for patients every Sunday. “There is no medical support or emergency aid support by the government nor the company. They should give at least that kind of support to our people.”
Yu Yu Myint Than/NRGI
50 year-old U Hae Way worked as a front line miner for many years and was required to use pneumatic drills without water. Without water, the dust from drilling spreads and can disturb the respiratory system causing TB and lung disease. He believes that his lung damage is because of mining, saying "No one comes and helps me. I don't want the next generation to work for the mine any more. I just want them to be educated." It was later confirmed that U Hae Way died of TB on 25th November 2017.
Yu Yu Myint Than/NRGI
Yu Yu Myint Than/NRGI
Saw Crato Hmuu worked in the tin mines since his childhood, as an errand boy to the front line miners until just last year. He is now suffering from lung disease and requires two and half oxygen bottles a day to survive. He maintains that "tin is the gift given by God and all of us live by tin. I don't want to blame tin, which is God's gift to us. Everything is under God's will."
God's Will?On my departure day I looked at the Mawchi area; the houses, the snake-like tunnels, the open pit mine under the cloud, the destroyed road and cracked paths, the groups of workers covered in dust having tea during their break.

I still remember the look of Saw Crato Hmuu and think of his words - 'Everything is under God's will.' I ask myself, the curse which has befallen this beautiful area of Mawchi, is that God's will?

The UNEARTH project is supported by the Natural Resource Governance Institute and was initiated as part of its Extractive Industries Photo Documentary Project.