International companies implicated in scramble for Shan State’s gold under Myanmar junta

Myanmar military involvement

Locrian and Valentis are also joined in Tachileik by 12 Myanmar companies that hold a total of 20 active mining permits—each for a 20-acre plot around Mong Len village tract and lasting 11 years—according to a list published in late 2021 by the Myanmar Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation (MNREC) and cited by SHRF. 

Seven of these permits, belonging to five companies, were granted since the coup, signifying an increase in mining activities during this period. 

“Several” of the companies involved are linked to officers who once served in eastern Shan State’s Triangle Regional Command and “clearly used their position to cash in on local gold mining opportunities,” according to SHRF.  

Yet the unofficial number of enterprises looking for gold is much larger, an SHRF spokesperson explained. 

“If we are talking about the total number of companies with licences, it is more than before [the coup]. But if we consider illegal companies, companies without licences, there may be up to 100 groups in total,” an SHRF representative said, citing local estimates which Myanmar Now is unable to independently verify.

The representative added that junta-backed militias typically “provide security” for mining sites, regardless of the legal status of the companies operating there. 

More than 50km north of Tachileik’s Ta Ler in Mong Phyak (Mong Hpayak) Township, another Australian-led company, Access Asia Mining—registered in Singapore—holds a permit for gold exploration on an 1,800 sq km swathe of land. 

The company came under criticism by SHRF and international watchdogs after its representatives met with local junta officials soon after the coup. No announcements have been made to indicate that they have since withdrawn from the country.

The SHRF representative confirmed that “mining exploration is still ongoing in Mong Phyak,” but did not have further information on the activities of Access Asia in particular. 

Access Asia did not respond to Myanmar Now’s request for comment on the status of the project.

‘The worst flooding’

Gold mining has reaped a heavy environmental toll in eastern Shan State, with toxic waste destroying farmland and poisoning water sources, and land degradation increasing the severity of floods.

“There are horrors happening downstream from these gold mines,” a longtime researcher on the extractive industries in Shan State told Myanmar Now on the condition of anonymity. “Companies like Locrian, Valentis and Access Asia are empowering the system that is in place, a system in which the people will never be protected.”

In July, the 52-household village of Na Hai Long in Mong Len village tract was submerged in mud as the Nam Kham stream overwhelmed the community, destroying nine homes and causing extensive damage to another eight. 

“This year has been the worst for flooding,” the SHRF representative said. He explained that the phenomenon has gradually worsened since industrial gold mining began in the area in 2007, and that residents of at least 12 households had already left due to the destruction caused by previous floods. 

At the time of reporting, he noted, no compensation had been provided to the residents whose homes were affected two months ago. In earlier years, flood victims had received between $5,000 and $18,000 from the local authorities, according to SHRF, but the amount was not enough to replace the land or houses they had lost. 

Meanwhile, farmland is reimbursed at a rate of less than $350 per acre, with much of it reportedly yet to be paid out. 

SHRF stated that villagers in the Mong Len area “have been too intimidated to oppose the gold mining” since the 2015 murder of a local man who had objected to the industry. Loong Sarm, a 54-year-old resident of Na Hai Long, was shot and killed by Myanmar army soldiers while monitoring the activities of a local extractive company. 

‘Let the people prevail’

Amendments to Myanmar’s Mines Law, passed in late 2015, essentially encouraged foreign investment in the sector, and were drafted with significant input from the Australian Agency for International Development, the mining minister at the time revealed

Yet community-based organisations in Shan State have long called for a moratorium on mining until, as SHRF said, there is “a federal devolution of power” in Myanmar.

The group noted that the “fast-tracking” of new mining projects by the junta since the coup had made this demand “more urgent than ever.” 

Speaking last year on behalf of the extractive industry transparency campaign Publish What You Pay, Transparency International’s Clancy Moore called on Australian resource companies including Locrian Precious Metals and Access Asia to “give up all exploration licenses and rule out financing the Myanmar military’s regime of terror.”

The statement followed a January withdrawal from Myanmar by oil and gas giants Total, from France; Chevron, from the US; and Australia’s Woodside, and urged mining companies to follow suit. 

In his recent comments to Myanmar Now, Moore urged the Australian government to “listen to the people of Myanmar” and “follow the leadership” of the US, UK and EU by introducing sanctions to cut off revenue to the junta. 

The industry researcher familiar with Shan State’s mining sector dismissed claims put forward by foreign investors that the extraction of Myanmar’s resources is inevitable, and that their own involvement in the process is more “benevolent” than that of their competitors.

“There’s no point in international companies saying, ‘Someone will exploit this situation, it might as well be us,’” the researcher said. “Rather than joining in, these companies need to pull out, not give any funds to the military, and let the people prevail.”

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