Rare Earth elements in Burma

N.B Chyoi / June 13, 2021

Rare Earth mining in Northern Burma / MNJ

“Nothing comes free” so is the mining of rare earth elements across the globe. Rare Earth elements have fetched importance in the recent times as we could not find substitute to these rare metals being used in wind turbines, hybrid cars, smart phones, cruise missiles and other high tech products without which life seems incomplete.

China which accounts for nearly 95% of the total world reserves of rare earth elements is engaged in extracting it since last three decades despite environmental concerns. The cost of extraction is almost one third in comparison to other countries and this has pushed China ahead in production of smart phones or computers.

The quantum of reserves and cost of extraction of rare earth elements has definitely put China in a comfortable position to manipulate or withhold the supplies. To check the monopoly of China, other countries like US, India and Brazil too restarted processing projects which were actually put in abeyance due to potential threats to the environment and human health.

Burma’s neighbour China, had been keeping watch over the rare earth deposits in Kachin State and Sagaing Region since last decades, and they also knew that everything in Burma can be managed if one is able to grease the regulators (Burma Army) from time to time and they have been successful. A decade back, when China had realized that the country’s rare earth operations since last four decades at Bayan-Obo have caused significant damage to surface vegetation, soil erosion, pollution and acidification, China decided to change the playground to Burma.

Being a poor country, peoples’ voices can be suppressed or hardly heard. Hpakant in Kachin State and Letpadaung & Wunthao in Sagaing Region are the live instances. China is smart enough to push her diaspora in Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia to register state enterprises or companies in their names to evade direct involvement and enjoy tax benefits. For instance Panaust, Australia based Chinese company is involved in mining in Shan State and they have won contracts in many other places. China is managing everything in Burma as State Administration Council, the main regulator, is in their control.

The conditions of locals around Letpadaung, Hpakant and Wunthao after the invasion by Chinese companies are well known. Loss of ancestral land without compensation or alternate livelihood, education or health facilities were not conferred as promised. No arrangement to dispose off the solid wastes which has ultimately effected the ecosystem in general. Bamar must introspect why China has chosen Burma for exploring and processing the rare earth elements? The reason is as simple, China has practically gauged the real time damage done while processing in their country so they have ventured into Burma’s ethnic dominated areas.

The rare earth elements are bound up in mineral deposits with the low level radioactive element thorium, exposure to which has been linked to an increased risk of developing lung, pancreatic and other cancers and companies hardly bothers about the safe disposable of solid waste from these plants. Lynas, the world’s largest processing facility of rare earth on the eastern coast on Malaysia has drawn environment concerns globally and some mechanism is being worked out to keep the check. Similarly such mechanisms should be developed and placed in Burma to preventing our ecosystem and human health from further deterioration.

N.B Chyoi is a Kachin lawyer and geopolitical analyst focusing especially on Burma, India and China.

The opinion expressed here is the author’s own, and does not represent the editorial policy of The Kachin Post.