Myanmar: Foreign mining companies colluding in serious abuses and illegality

Canadian and Chinese mining interests have profited from, and in some cases colluded with the Myanmar authorities in serious human rights abuses and illegal activity around the Monywa copper mine complex, which includes the notorious Letpadaung mine, Amnesty International said in a report released today.

Open for Business? Corporate Crime and Abuses at Myanmar Copper Mine describes how large-scale forced evictions and serious pollution linked to the mine have destroyed livelihoods and exposed thousands of people to health risks. Community protests have been met with excessive force by police, including, on one occasion, the use of white phosphorous, a highly toxic and explosive substance. 

Amnesty International also found evidence of illegal activity including possible breaches of economic sanctions.  

“Myanmar offers the perfect storm of a rich natural resource base, a weak legal system and an economy dominated by military and special interests. The government has forcibly evicted people, crushed all attempts at peaceful protest and displayed a complete unwillingness to hold companies to account,” said Meghna Abraham, Amnesty International’s Corporate Crimes Researcher.

“The Monywa project is a cautionary tale on investment in Myanmar, where corporate projects are too often marked by abuses and communities are ripped apart in the pursuit of profit. Construction of the Letpadaung mine must be halted immediately until rights issues have been addressed.”

Amnesty International’s report includes evidence of:

Thousands of people forcibly evicted in the 1990s, in violation of international law,  to make way for investment by Canadian company Ivanhoe Mines (now Turquoise Hill Resources); the company knew their investment would lead to the evictions, yet did nothing. It profited from more than a decade of copper mining, carried out in partnership with Myanmar’s military government, without attempting to address the thousands left destitute.Thousands more people forcibly evicted since 2011 to make way for the Letpadaung mine, which is run by Chinese company Wanbao and Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEHL), the economic arm of the Myanmar military. Wanbao directly engaged in forced evictions, and colluded with the authorities, including by providing bulldozers to destroy crops. In November 2012 security forces used white phosphorous, a highly toxic explosive substance, in a deliberate attack on villagers and monks who were protesting the negative impacts of the Letpadaung mine. More than 100 people were injured, with some suffering horrific burns and lifelong disability. Part of the attack was launched from inside the Wanbao company compound.  The use of white phosphorous by the security forces against the protestors constituted torture – a crime under international law. In December 2014 one woman died and several other people were injured when police opened fire on protestors at the Letpadaung site. Protests against the mine have repeatedly been met by excessive use of force by police.Ivanhoe Mines was involved, through its Monywa investment, in the sale of copper to a “who’s-who” of the Myanmar military. These sales took place when economic sanctions were still in force. Ivanhoe lied publically about the copper sales, and its subsidiary may have breached UK economic sanctions. When Ivanhoe Mines divested from Myanmar it did so in a highly secretive process involving legal entities in the British Virgin Islands. Amnesty International’s investigation found evidence that Ivanhoe Mines and legal entities associated with the company may have breached Canadian and UK economic sanctions during the divestment. The organization is calling on Canada and the UK to initiate criminal investigations into the issue.The military-owned conglomerate UMEHL illegally operated a sulphuric acid factory linked to the Monywa mine for six years. When this was exposed, the factory was approved by the authorities, who made no attempt to take punitive action against UMEHL.

 “The people living around Monwya and Letpadaung have suffered more than two decades of abuse linked to the business operations of Canadian, Myanmar and now Chinese corporations. Investment can help Myanmar, but this project benefits the companies while harming the people,” said Meghna Abraham. 

Amnesty International calls for:

Investigations by Canada and China into the activities of Ivanhoe Mines and Wanbao in Myanmar.Canadian and UK authorities to investigate whether Ivanhoe Mines and related legal entities breached Canadian and/or UK economic sanctions. All construction of the Letpadaung mine to be halted until the abuses are addressed.Investigations by the Myanmar authorities into the police response to protests at Letpadaung, including the use of while phosphorous and the role played by Wanbao in allowing the police to use a company compound to launch part of the attack. The Myanmar authorities to provide adequate compensation and resettlement to people who were forcibly evicted and to reform its legal framework to better protect rights of mine-affected communities.


The Monywa project comprises the Sabetaung and Kyisintaung (S&K) and the Letpadaung copper mines. S&K has been operational since the 1980s. Letpadaung is under construction.

In 1996 Canadian company Ivanhoe Mines Ltd. entered into a joint venture with a Myanmar state company, Mining Enterprise No. 1 (ME1), to set up the Myanmar Ivanhoe Copper Company Limited (MICCL), in which both held a 50 per cent interest. MICCL operated the S&K mine.

In 2007 Ivanhoe Mines decided to divest from Myanmar and established a third-party-Trust to which its Myanmar assets were transferred.

In 2010 it was announced that China North Industries Corporation (NORINCO) and UMEHL had entered into an agreement about the Monywa project, which includes both S&K and Letpadaung mines. Subsidiaries of Wanbao Mining Ltd (owned by NORINCO) operate both mines today The process by which the ME1-Ivanhoe Mines assets transferred to the China-Myanmar military partnership of Wanbao-UMHEL has never been disclosed.

Amnesty International approached the companies named in this report for comments on the allegations against them. Where responses were provided, these have been incorporated in the report.