The Ban Chaung coal mine is a large open-pit mine that, according to civil society reports, has caused severe livelihood loss and environmental degradation, but also strong resistance and mobilizations by locals to stop the unsustainable project . In June 2017, representatives of indigenous Karen filed a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, alleging human rights violations caused by the activities of the Thai mining companies . According to the complaint, the mine has illegally seized villagers’ land, damaged the livelihood of locals, and polluted water bodies and the air. No less than 16,000 people from 22 villages in the Ban Chaung area are impacted or expected to be affected [1,2,3].
The coal deposits at Ban Chaung were first surveyed under Burma’s past military regime during 2003, 2006 and 2007. Mining permits covering 2,100 acres (ca.850 ha) were granted to the Myanmar Mayflower Mining company during 2010-2011, in an area heavily affected by past fighting between the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Myanmar Army . In 2011, Thai survey teams arrived at the area to make plans for a road to transport coal out of the area  and agreements between the Myanmar and Thai companies to operate in the area were consequently made. Company representatives eventually told villagers about the plans, however, at that stage decisions were already made, documents a report . Mining began on a small area around the time of the preliminary ceasefire agreement in 2012 and brought grave consequences to the villagers. One villager said: “After the ceasefire was signed, I thought I would live peacefully. But I don’t think that anymore […] This mining project is worse than the civil war.” (cited in , page 12). (for a detailed Project Timeline, see , for an overview of company involvement see Project Details (below) and )
The project was pushed forward without Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC), with no Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) and with severe impacts on people’s traditional culture and their fishing and farming-based livelihoods depending on a healthy environment, document several reports and complaints [1,2,3]. Their land, orchards and gardens were seized without prior notice and permission [2,3]. While a few have received some compensation after their land was taken, others haven’t received anything at all. The mine has also caused an influx of outsiders, both of workers and soldiers protecting the mine. Villagers feel insecure and intimidated [1,2,3].
According to the reports, the rivers used by locals for drinking, bathing, fishing and swimming were polluted from toxic mining waste, dumped by the companies into the streams. During rains, mining pits fill up with dirty water that is than pumped out by the companies onto farmland and streams [2,3]. Fish stocks have disappeared and people in the area have fallen ill and suffer from skin diseases . Water quality tests conducted by NGOs in 2014 showed high acidity at dangerous levels for health and the environment [1,2]. People are furthermore constantly exposed to air pollution from noxious fumes . The waste piles, dumped in the village area, burn frequently and smolder and the smoke makes living close to the mine unbearable . In 2015, things got worse, when coal fires started to burn uncontrollably, releasing much toxic fumes that impact people and the environment. While the company, every now and then, has responded to the complains by trying to control the coal burning, uncontrolled fires continue to appear .
Impacts are expected to further increase, once the mining area is expanded. Currently, only about 64 acres are mined. Despite of agreements with KNU officials in 2014 to not further expand the mine, the company has apparently presented a revised map with an expansion area occupied by villagers’ school, church, playground, houses and plantations . In April 2015, the Ministry of Mines announced to revise the contract to not expand the project beyond 612 of “vacant land”, which however is used by villagers for rotational farming . Furthermore, the mine is developed in a former conflict zone, to which some internally displaced people from the civil war haven’t yet returned. After the mine is fully developed, they may be unable to do so [2,3].
Mobilizations against the coal mine have started since the beginning of the mining activities. For instance, villagers blocked the road construction and the company was unable to finish it [1,2]. Civil society organizations have supported them and have conducted detailed research on the project during 2012-2015. Their findings on the mine’s harmful development were published in a report entitled “We used to fear bullets, now we fear bulldozers” [see 1]. Following the pressure of frequent protests, blockades and increased media coverage on the controversial project, the mine was suspended a few times . In January 2014, KNU officers ordered a suspension, which apparently was ignored by the Thai East Star company . In early 2017, the mine was put on hold after Tanintharyi Region’s minister for resources and environmental conservation inspected the mine and found waste water being dumped into the Ban Chaung Creek . According to the civil society group Tarkapaw Youth Dawei, no less than 37 letters were sent to the government before this temporary halt of the mine was achieved .
In June 2017, 153 representatives, with support of the local groups Tarkapaw Youth Group, Spirit in Education Movement and the organization Inclusive Development International (IDI), filed a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT). NHRCT has the power to investigate and intervene into the extra-territorial actions of Thai companies. The village representatives called upon the Commission to investigate the companies associated with the mining activities for human rights violations . Among the alleged violations are the right to self-determination, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to health and the right to an effective remedy [2,3]. An initial hearing was conducted by the NHRCT in September, 2017 [5,7]. While the companies have stopped the operations temporarily, the remaining coal piles continue to burn and pollute the environment, locals reported .
Meanwhile, several other bottom-up mobilizations have followed. For instance, in May 2018, over 500 villagers urged directly the President to stop the mining operations . Furthermore, following two years of research, the indigenous communities of Bau Chaung presented in 2018 a unique report on the ethnobiological knowledge and diversity of the area. The report demonstrates “the enormous amount of indigenous knowledge that local communities hold over their territories” [8, page 4] and emphasizes the importance of respecting villagers’ indigenous beliefs, customs and practices on their ancestral lands for their livelihoods as well as for the conservation of the unique cultural landscapes and ecosystems in which they live [see 8 for details].
Villagers and civil society groups call on the stakeholders involved to stop the harmful mining project, to redress the damages caused, to establish a different development path for Tanintharyi region and to raise awareness about the harmful impacts of coal mining on people and the environment .