Karens condemn Myanmar army cement plant for water pollution

A civil society organisation in Karen State has released a report on water contamination linked to a Myanmar military-run cement factory and requested the withdrawal of all charges against environmental activist Saw Tha Phoe who has advocated for the social and environmental rights of local Karen communities. 

Public prayer ceremony on January 17, 2020 to protest the water pollution. (Source: Karen River Watch)

Fish trap in a seasonally flooded pond near Ye Dwin Kon township in Karen State where the water turned completely black and the fish died in October 2019. (Source: KIC/Karen River Watch)

Environmental and human rights activist Saw Tha Phoe. (Source: Karen River Watch)

Last Tuesday (31 March 2020), Karen River Watch (KRW), an environmental civil society organisation in Karen State of Myanmar also known as Burma, released a report on water contamination linked to a cement factory run by the Myanmar military and the unjustified charges against environmental activist Saw Tha Phoe.

Karen River Watch reported that since October 2019, villages near the Myaing Kalay cement factory, which is run by the military-owned Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), have been affected by contaminated water and mass fish die-offs in local lakes and streams.

As a consequence of the contamination and changes to the local ecosystem, local villagers face difficulties in accessing drinking water, and have experienced health issues and other social and economic impacts. 

The villagers believe that the cause is the MEC-owned 4,000-ton cement factory, which recently transitioned from using natural gas as a power source to coal. However, the authorities connected to the cement plant deny any connection between the water pollution and the cement factory, but without conducting any independent studies or providing scientific assessments of the water contamination. The authorities connected to the cement factory provided the villages with unsustainable short-term solutions such as artesian wells and ponds.

To seek remediation for this crisis, the affected villagers came together to organise a traditional public prayer ceremony led by village monks on January 17, 2020, at Nant Kone Village. Many community-based organisations, Karen artists, and activists joined the ceremony. Throughout the water contamination crisis these community-based organisations and activists have provided safe drinking water and other forms of support for the villagers. They have also sought ways to solve the water pollution problem, with no expectation of any personal or political benefits in return.

On March 6, 2020, the police entered and searched the family home of Karen activist Saw Tha Phoe, who participated in the prayer ceremony and provided support for the local villagers. The police accused Saw Tha Phoe of offenses against the state as outlined in Section 505(b) of the Myanmar Penal Code.

Karen River Watch released a briefing paper “Dark Waters & Forbidden Prayers”. In order to  quickly resolve the issues of water contamination and the charges against Saw Tha Phoe, Karen River Watch released a briefing with the following recommendations:

“1. The government must allow any water donor to donate water directly to the villagers without restriction. This includes villagers facing water shortages due to the water contamination crisis and the decrease of water levels in local streams and wells during hot season. If necessary, the government must cooperate with and assist the donors.

“2. A joint multi-stakeholder mechanism must be established, consisting of representatives from the government, MEC, Karen National Union (KNU), independent experts, affected community members, civil society, and media for the development of a long term solution. This mechanism must be officially mandated to facilitate a transparent and accountable process to monitor and test water samples, gather relevant information related to the water contamination, as well as to provide science-based recommendations to the government. There must be no pressure on or threats against anyone involved in this mechanism.

“3. Saw Tha Phoe is a community-based human and environmental rights activist working closely with local communities in Southeast Myanmar on environmental and social protections. Saw Tha Phoe is doing his work as a citizen, advocating for social and environmental rights of these communities. The government’s response to this case by charging him under penal code 505(b), is an act of restricting citizens’ rights from the practicing rule of law. These charges set a precedent that communities cannot respond even in an organised and peaceful manner- to environmental challenges and threats to their natural resources.

“4. Statements released about this case by local organisations in Myanmar and international civil society organisations clearly demonstrate that the people of Karen State, community based organisations and civil society organisation across Myanmar, and international civil society organisations disapprove of the Myanmar government’s actions against Saw Tha Phoe.

“5. Statements released by several groups from within the country and internationally demonstrate unified and strong condemnation for the charges against Saw Tha Phoe. Several of these statements have called into question the basis of the charges and call for the charges to be dropped immediately. The charges against Saw Tha Phoe under Penal Code 505(b) for defamation of the state by the Karen State government are an act which violates human rights and weakens the rule of law in Myanmar by harming the dignity and wellbeing of Saw Tha Phoe and his family.”

In the statement, the group also demands amendment of Myanmar’s Penal Code 505 (b), which criminalises freedom of speech and restricts freedom of movement and the social, environmental and human rights of activists or citizens, and calls on the local government to drop all charges against Saw Tha Phoe.

“Thus, we strongly condemn the legal proceedings being taken against Saw Tha Phoe and call for the Karen State government to immediately drop all charges against him.” Karen River Watch says in the statement.