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Illegal mining of rare earth metals surges in northern Myanmar

rare earth mining site in northern Myanmar's Kachin state (Environmental Justice Atlas/Released)
September 05, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

An increase in the illegal mining of rare earth metals in northern Myanmar is being driven by demand from neighboring China for terbium and dysprosium – elements that are used in the production of electric vehicles, area residents and environmental activists said.

The practice is rampant in Kachin state, where successive governments have failed to regulate mining for gold, jade and other rare metals for generations. The number of unsanctioned operations ballooned after the military’s Feb. 1, 2021, takeover amid conflict between junta troops and armed resistance forces in the region.

In the first six months of 2023, the value of rare earth minerals exported from Myanmar to China reached nearly US$773 million, according to Chinese customs data. 

In 2021, more than US$811 million worth of rare earth minerals were exported to China. That dropped to over US$615 million in 2022 amid instability and armed conflict, according to the data. 

This year, rare earth mining has risen in the state’s northeastern Pang War and Chipwi areas bordering China, according to a Burmese resident who requested anonymity for safety reasons.

“The surge is primarily due to the paramilitary militias, known as phithusit, engaging in mining because they lack other sources of income,” the resident said. 

Because of the depletion of mining areas in Pang War, people have started mining in the Chan Maw Khone area of Chipwi township and in the vicinity of the town of Chipwi, which previously had not been mined, he said.

At least 4,000 Chinese nationals work at more than 200 mining sites in the area around Pang War. They transport chemicals used in the mining industry nearly every day, according to a person close to immigration officials in Pang War, who also declined to be named for safety reasons. 

RFA could not reach Chinese companies or workers engaged in mining activities in the areas because they use Chinese mobile phone networks.

The Chinese nationals are believed to have entered the country illegally, but Myanmar officials cannot take action against them because only the Border Guard Force and the pro-junta Pyi Thu Sit militia operate in the area, the local said.

The Chinese embassy in Yangon didn’t immediately respond to RFA’s emailed requests for comment.

Various armed groups involved

Kachin state has been a hotbed of anti-junta resistance since the coup, with the military using heavy artillery and air strikes during clashes with an ethnic armed group and anti-regime People’s Defense Force units.

Armed groups in Kachin state, including the Myanmar military, pro-junta militias, Border Guard Forces, and the Kachin Independence Organization’s armed wing, have all profited from exporting metals to China, according to a Thailand-based researcher on Sino-Burmese relations, who declined to be named for safety reasons.

According to a July 26 listing of U.S. and Ireland-based Strategic Metal Invest, one kilogram of dysprosium was worth about US$500, while one kilogram of terbium was valued at more than US$2,000.

The illegal extraction of rare earth metals contaminates groundwater and soil, produces toxic dust, and leaves open pits with water tainted by chemicals. But the ongoing instability has made it difficult to do any prevention work, said an environmental activist from a group that observes the mining businesses in Kachin state.

“Stopping the mining depends on the rule of law within the region, but currently environmental activist groups like ours are in a difficult position to [try to] work effectively,” he said. “We can’t go to the excavation sites as we could before.”

Junta forces keep a close eye on area activists to see if they meet with anti-regime armed groups, he said. The junta also restricts environmental protection groups from going to certain places, the activist said.

Win Ye Tun, the junta’s social affairs minister and spokesman for Kachin state, said the mining of rare earth metals is illegal there.

“Our government has not officially approved any mining sites,” he said. “Some are still being verified, some are prohibited, and action will be taken against those mining, according to the law.”

It’s possible that armed groups themselves are conducting the mining, he added.

RFA couldn’t reach the state’s Border Guard Force for comment.

Meanwhile, new mining is taking place in the Mai Ja Yang area controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization, or KIO, the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army, which controls the area and has clashed with the Myanmar military for decades.

KIO spokesman Colonel Naw Bu told RFA that the organization has only conducted some test-mining in the area.

Chinese companies mining rare earth minerals in Kachin state said they would stop their activities after more than 1,000 villagers in the area controlled by the KIO began protesting in December 2022, complaining of environmental damage caused by extracting the elements, Voice of America reported in April.

That month, the KIO gave the Chinese enterprises permission to mine in the state near the border with China’s Yunnan Province.