“Enormous coal is unearthed from the ground just like a sleeping dragon in the geothermal woken up to kill, slay, burn out and destroy the people. The coal does not kill the people by spurting out a fire, but more brutally, it swallows humans, animals, plants, and rivers.”
More than 7 years, Kon Chaung Gyi Village which is a Christian Karen village has faced with threats within their village, not from the war between the Burma National Army and the Karen National Army, but the conflict between several ethnic groups that has been prolonged for decades like a devil who killed the villagers during the war or made them flee from their hometown suffering in foreign country such as Thailand. Such threat was a huge coal mine covering 504.8 acres or approximately 1262 rai.
Ban Chaung Coal Mine Area is located near the center of the village
Last March, The Mekong Butterfly team accompanied by a group of travelers who are following up the operation of Ban Chaung Coal Mine. Such coal mine was managed by Thai company in Karen area under the influence of the Karen National Union (KNU), they went there to monitor the health and environmental impacts occurred in the area after the operation of the mine for more than 7 years, which is to say since 2010. When the signing of the concession agreement has occurred between East Star Co., Ltd. and the KNU, the latest allowed the company to operate this coal mine. Nowadays, 2 plots (from all 6 plots) of the mine has been operated by East Star Company covering 60 acres located in Kon Chaung Gyi village.
The Mekong Butterfly and the team started from Thailand border heading to Phu Nam Ron Checkpoint, Kanchanaburi Province to cross the assumed natural frontier and immigration checkpoint to Tiki Town, Tanintharyi Region of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. The representatives of civil society organizations and local villagers picked us up by car, then we spent 45 minutes crossing a mountain through Tanintharyi forest to Kon Chaung Gyi Village using temporary access road constructed by Italian-Thai Development Public Company Limited (ITD) taking a shortcut to the area of Dawei Special Economic Zone Project. After 3 hours using the route constructed by East Star Company to Kon Chaung Gyi Village, the road which is used for coal’s conveyance and transportation. We spent totally around 4 hours from Phu Nam Ron Checkpoint to Kon Chaung Gyi Village. We passed the plentiful tropical rainforest; the conservative forest under the Conservation Agency of the KNU crossing a huge evaporated river as it was not rainy season, we, therefore, could travel by pick-up truck. But when the rainy season came, Tanintharyi River as the big blood vessel of Dawei and the people in Tanintharyi Region would return alive and overflow in the wide area. If we have to travel across the river, we then have to go by boat only.
Betel nuts, economic plant of the village
As soon as our team and other companions arrived at Kon Chaung Gyi Village, we found that the village is located in a seemingly valley among the green jungle. At the center of the village we saw a shared space for community’s activities, it is a large outdoor patio for gathering, ceremony, and worship. Most of the villagers do animal husbandries such as pigs, chickens, goats, and dogs. There is Protestantism Church at the center of the village which was built and renovated modernly by the supports from villagers who evacuated to the USA. The aforesaid outdoor patio is a large lawn with 1 school, 1 community stage and 1 large kitchen for cooking and feeding the community. There are single houses located not far away from each other in the center of the village. The other houses are located scatteringly far from the village but near Kon Chaung Gyi River; one of the Ban Chaung River branches nourishing more than 20 Karen villages gathering in this area named after this river.
Church in the village
Mentioning about numerical details and population system, the Kon Chaung Gyi’s village headman informed us that there are 400 people, 110 households, and 150 immature children, that is to say, almost 1/3 of the total population which is quite a high number.
Not only a good environment; we also found that the villagers gave us warm welcome. Many of them can speak Thai fluently, it was easy to understand their livelihoods, ways of living and the problems in this area. Many villagers gladly volunteered to be honorary interpreters and moreover took us for exploring the community, including the coal mine without any requests.
Those villagers who can speak Thai told us that they had worked and lived in Thailand for ten years. They left the village when they were still young or teenagers because they had to escape from the war and try to find safe zone for living. Many people had lived in the refugee camp in Thailand for ten years, then moved to the third countries. Some of them moved to start a new life on the other side of the world such as Europe and the USA. Still, they missed the people here, some came back sometimes to visit their families and some gave the money for supporting the village development. After signing a ceasefire agreement, the villagers who moved out from the village could gradually come back again to their motherland. Although many of them could not get back to live in the same houses or even the same area, they were closer to their families though.
With abundant natural resources in the community, the villagers here and nearby have economic and cultural base tied to what nature give to them. Community’s income and wealth are from agriculture, rotational agriculture by planting rice and other home-grown vegetables. However, the important plants are cashew nuts, rubber trees, mangoes, durians, rambutans and especially the betel palms which are exported from the community to Dawei. The betel palms and cashew nuts are later distributed and exported over the country, especially in Yangon and also foreign countries such as China and India.
Our team had a chance to survey the Ban Chaung Coal Mine as well as monitored its operation along with 10 villagers of Kon Chaung Gyi Village and some of their neighbors who took us to the 60 acres mine overlapped the community’s workplace which used to be a small hill for planting herb called “Para” in the past. But now, this hill is getting bigger and higher because of soil deposition caused by the company in order to make the coal combustion landfill. The low-grade lignite coal was found and it was very harmful to health. There was a big marshy hold from coal digging. Furthermore, we found 2 old sediment retention ponds surrounded by wooden fence among the grasses and regenerated trees, approximately less than 5 meters far from a small river called the “Dabuploh River”. These sediment retention ponds were not big and used for water storage from the mine and kept the water away from water sources and village’s cultivated areas. Besides, 3 other small sediment ponds were also found the opposite to the first 2 ponds surrounded by wooden fence. Finally, there were 5 sediment retention ponds.
Big hole with water that was dug by the company
Mr. Teng Ou, the former teacher at a school in Kon Chaung Gyi Village said that 3 sediment retention ponds were dug after villagers’ petition and agreement for more digging since it was not sufficient to retain water and sediment from the mine. The villagers yet informed that although they had more sediment ponds, the problems could not be solved. When it rained, the water still overflowed from the mine with toxic spreading easier into water sources and air. While exploring the mine, we also witnessed the smoke of coal burning came out periodically from the surface of the landfill site. The villagers told us that the company just did the landfill after combustion once again.
Three sedimentation ponds which was dug by the company according to community demand
Not far from the 3 new sediment retention ponds, we found a small stream near the mine which is apparently contaminated with the sediment flowing out of such mine. The water turned to dark orange and intense, more than 10 trees including betel palms were dead without falling down in the middle of the stream. There was a square vinyl with clear messages about the overflow problems caused by the mine in English, Thai, Burmese and Karen languages. The messages such as “We Lost Water Because of Waste”, “Betel Palms Died Because of Mine Water”, “Mine Water Flows into the Rivers” and we also found other campaign signs.
Betel palms die near the coal mine
Hah Mi, a 36-year-old man, the owner of the house along the Dabuploh River and the sediment retention ponds specified that his family always uses and consumes water from this river. His children also bathe in the river and after they finished bathing, they found clear blisters all over their bodies and they felt itchy on their skin. Hah Mi talked about his dramatic experience which occurred not only to his children but also his 34-year-old wife, her name is Pan Phyo who had consecutively abortion twice during 2015-2016 and last 2016-2017. The first abortion happened when his wife was at 3 months of pregnancy and the second time, she was at the 5th months. Hah Mi also informed that before his wife had an abortion, she did not work hard or lift heavy things at all. She had a normal life but consumed the water from the Dabuploh River and smelt the smoke coal combustion. Consequently, his wife, he himself, as well as their children, had to completely shelter themselves in the house in order to avoid such a stinky spreading all around the area. His wife sometimes could not stand the smoke, so she moved to her mother’s house near the Ban Chaung River. He further told us that his wife had dizziness, headache, burning eyes and high blood pressure before she got an abortion. After the last abortion, she was treated by a midwife and modern medicine doctor in the village. He, his wife and both doctors thought that her abortions probably caused by coal smoke.
Hah Mi is one of Kon Chuang Gyi villager who lives alongside Dabuploh River
Though it had serious effects on their health until now he has not noticed any impacts on his agricultural products such as betel palms or others. These plants are still fruitful and not standing dead like other trees near the sediment retention ponds or along the Dabuploh River which were planted at the river level. As his garden was higher than the river level so it was not affected. His recent house has been built for more than 8 years before the mine was operated and they used to live their lives without any effects at that time.
Not far from Hah Mi’s house, on the other side of the Dabuploh River, we found an abandoned wooden house among wilderness. Maung Toh, one of the villagers who surveyed with us was the owner of this house. He took us through the wilderness to his house and surrounding area, then he told the reason why he must leave the house:
“My wife and I moved from this house 2 years ago (around 2015-2016) because we could not stand for the smell of coal burning, we felt faint, dizzy and exhausted. Now we live with our relatives in the center of the village”.
No wonder if he left this house for that reason because 300 meters not far from the house was the sandy hill derived occasionally from coal combustion landfill. He told that before it rained or in the rainy season, the smoke from that area would extremely diffuse and smelly.
Maung Toh, an elderly man, who had to abandon his own home to escape from the smell and the smoke of the coal.
Near such area, there were also the betel palms and perennial plants which owned by him and his wife. Nowadays, he still comes here to harvest but does not take care of the garden like in the past. While living in this house, they usually used the water from the small stream near the mine and found that those crops along the river bank were immature, some died standing. After moving from this house, he has no land of his own and also did not get any compensation from the mining.
Although, Maung Toh was not much affected by coal combustion smoke but his 52-year-old wife, Poh Lawa, had a headache, backache, felt dizzy, breathless and tired. She also had itchy and burning skin on her arms and body.
“At the beginning of the mine’s operation, there was not many strange symptoms. But a year later after 2013, there was a headache and dizziness, so we moved out. Now we can breathe easier but still feel faint and have a headache sometimes”.
She found that her neighbors near the mine also had the same symptoms. She said that she was upset to leave her home and land. It is necessary to pioneer in a new arable land. Regarding the treatment of illnesses happened to her health, she had to buy antiseptic from drugstore of the village or neighborhoods. She had to pay for medicine around 3,000 Kyats or 100 Baht. In addition, Poh Lawa also got a treatment from Thai doctor provided by East Star Company because this is a request from the community. As mentioned, one of the 11 requests was that the company have to provide health treatment for the villagers. However, the company did not disclose any results to recipients, there was furthermore no advice from the doctor so that health problems have never been solved. Even though they got health treatment but they had no in-depth analysis such as blood test, said Poh Lawa.
Poh Lawa, Maung Toh’s wife, has burns on her skin
“We would like to go back and live in our land; our abandoned house. We would like to make a demand for damage compensation for all affected people. The company should stop permanently mining because if it stops, the water sources would be restored and we definitely could go back home”, the husband and wife finally said.
Apart from of Hah Mi and Maung Toh’s families, there were also many other families who reflected their problems to us. Many villagers reported that since 2012, the coal mine have started operation, they got bad smell from the coal combustion including the sediment contaminated into water sources. They had a headache, dizziness, faint, sore eyes, blurred vision, allergic, a cold, nasal congestion, runny nose and hardly breathing. The report said that an 11-year-old child had epilepsy three times. Some people who lived near the mine had worse symptoms than those who lived far away from it. Many of them could not go to work, they were exhausted all the time and needed to stay home for rest. They also had bone pain which was different from general muscular aches. Some had trigger finger symptom, felt senseless, thrombosis, unable to handle things. For example, they hold something and then automatically drop it, still conscious but uncontrollable. Moreover, some had dysuria symptom and there were 3 villagers who were very sick, they got food via nasogastric tube because they had a terrible sore throat, they could not eat normally. The villagers also told that there were 2 people who died of lung and bone cancer. It was not known exactly but the doctor said they died of cancer. Not only the smoke from coal combustion but also the dust from coal transportation were spread out along the way and contaminated the rivers, betel palm gardens, agricultural crops and even the air. That affected the villagers who consume such contaminated water and it made some of them afraid to use water from the streams.
Soe Deh Ki, one of the community members told and showed that he had abnormal swollen skin consisted of soft and hard lumps on his arms and body. These strange symptoms that he and our team have never found before. Then, the villagers started to talk about the effects to the children in the village, pointing out that those who took part in the meeting had a dysfunctional body that we easily notice from their appearances. Villagers asked a child for rolling up his clothes and we found the spotted scratching wounds from their back to bottom and also many blemishes on their body. They said that these blemishes appeared after the children had bathed in the river near the mine. It started with bulla and blister symptoms including unknown cause itch. All symptoms mentioned above did not show before mining.
Ei Seh, a 30-year-old father who has 2 little children, is one of the affected people from the coal smoke told us while he was in front of his old house that:
“I moved out from here 2 years ago because I could not stand the smoke, very bad smell like the petrol and asphalt. My wife and I had a headache and felt sick every time when the smoke appeared. I have endured living in this house for 4 years since the company started to operate the mine. I also have suffered from the bad smell for 2 years then I moved out. More importantly, I worried about my wife and children”. This was the feeling of the one who is both family leader and father.
Ei Seh has 3 children, his child is 3 years old and the youngest is 6 months old. He left his house when he first child was only 1 year old. It means that had to smell the coal combustion smoke for fully 1 year. Ei Seh also said that before he moved out, his child began to have asthma symptom and that is why he decided to move. He thought if he still lived there, it would affect seriously his child’s health. His eldest child still has asthma until now.
The hearsay mentioned above was the fact that the villagers of Kon Chaung Gyi Village have faced for almost 7 years after the coal mine started operation. The violence and the effects told by community might reflect the consequences caused by coal mine at the industrial level. What about the academic description?
During this survey and impact inquiry, not only our team who fulfilled the understanding about health and environment issues, it is important to have the experts who have been involved in such issues for a long time with their academic contents to share with the community and The Mekong Butterfly team.
Dr. Arpa Wangkiat; one of the survey teams, a lecturer from Faculty of Engineering, Rangsit University had exchanged academic information about the coal and its effect towards health. She started by describing the categories of coal and said that the coal in Ban Chaung Coal Mine was the lowest quality Lignite (from 4 types of coal: Lignite, Sub-bituminous, Bituminous and Anthracite) as it has high Sulfer and releases Sulfur Dioxide, smells like Hydrogen Sulfide, petrol or asphalt. In the coal, there is heat source known as “Hydrocarbon” which is from a deposition of hummus for millions of years. It appeared in some products such as pencil lead, tire etc. Besides, there is more than 25 kinds of heavy metal or other metal compounds. The heavy metal such as Arsenic, Mercury, Lead, Cadmium, Copper, Nickel, Chromium, Manganese, Iron, Zinc etc. The metal compounds such as Aluminium, Silver, Barium, Antimony, Molybdenum, and Vanadium. Moreover, there are Gas acidifier and Carcinogenic in the coal. Also, there are volatile organic compounds perceived from the coal combustion causing the smell like the petrol. If we inhale a lot and for a long time, it can cause Leukemia. There are also radioactive in the coal such as Uranium, Thorium, Radium, and residue for hundred thousand years if they contaminated in water. If you eat, you will get toxic into your body.
She gave more explanation about coal smoke that if it spreads in the air and rain, it would make acid rain leading to soil and water contamination. It of course would damage plants and aquatic animals; food of the community and flow in the food chain. The toxin in the air and water sources will get into human bodies through breathing and direct touch such as drinking water, bathing or consuming. The toxin will get into our body through the skin, pore or mouth into the internal organs such as liver, lung, and kidney and flows in the blood system throughout the body. It can affect the midbrain system which control the movement of our body. So if the midbrain system was disordered, it means that the toxin got into the midbrain system. The toxin can cause the kidney disorder observed from the Micturition symptom because there are a lot of toxin in the kidney and accumulated for long time. However, there are some toxins which can be removed from the body such as Lead. To make sure whether these toxins are in your body or not, you have to get blood test and analysis. Considering the health situation during the morning survey and all symptoms we found, it is in an alarm or pre-crisis level. It is essential to find the solutions rapidly.
Almost 50% of village’s population (around 400 people) children. It is a very serious issue because the coal toxin affects greatly the vulnerable groups such as low immunity people, people with congenital diseases and immature children with small internal organs so they cannot stand a lot of toxins, they have small and short esophagus and respiratory, it is easier to get toxin into their bodies. The children probably have a slow brain and intellectual development and they may have mental retardation.
After listening to Dr. Arpa’s explanation, many people seemed to be more concerned about their health and the community economic change in the future. This would be the doubtful questions for further finding answers. But the clearest direction is to make the company stop mining permanently and to speed up natural resources recovery…bury the killer dragon deep down the earth eternally.