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After almost three years of operation in Malaysia, Australian Lynas corporation, which focuses on rare earth processing, still does not have a waste processing plan, part of which are radioactive. The demands by several Malaysian organizations that reject Lynas operations in Gebeng, Kuantan, in the state of Pahang, are clear: they want the factory to clean up and leave.
The first shipment with rare earths to be processed by Lynas arrived from Australia to Kuantan´s port in November 2011. Part of the raw materials to make laptop computers, cell phones, TVs and other so called green technology, including parts in ‘eco’ cars and energy saving light bulbs come from this industry. The factory was built without prior consultation and consent and the community only found out about the project in March 2011. It was thanks to a local member of Parliament who organized a public forum and informed them that the New York Times had published a report that dealt with the construction of a rare earths plant in Gebeng.
Environmental federation Friends of the Earth International conducted a solidarity mission to Malaysia to verify the situation of the persecution of environmental defenders in their struggle. Real World Radio joined the mission to Gebeng, Kuantan.
Persecution and background of the struggle
On June 22nd, 2014, a peaceful demonstration in which over 1,000 people participated and which was held outside Lynas´s plant resulted in the arrest of 15 Malaysians and an Australian resident, activist Natalie Lowrey. She was released six days later while the 15 from the Himpunan Hijau (Green Assembly) grassroots movement were released that same night on bail. They were charged in court about a month later and were ordered not to speak about the case by the judge. They are currently facing trial.
The arrest took place while the demonstrators were holding a sit in, in an attempt to have the plant closed down for good. A few demonstrators were violently beaten by the police, according to a few eye witness accounts of those present during the peaceful demonstration. One of the persons arrested was almost unconscious when he was put in a police vehicle.
Those interviewed also told Real World Radio that it was common practice to have non uniformed police officers during demonstrations. Lynas opponents also said that there were many times during a gathering of people to oppose the operations of the plant, there would be troublemakers trying to intimidate them and invoke fear.
The Green Assembly, Save Malaysia Stop Lynas and the Stop Lynas Corporation groups have been carrying out a strong campaign with the local community to raise awareness and provide avenues for them to exercise their democratic right to voice their objections in the interest of public against a potentially harmful plant.
The resistance against Lynas has been strong and it is considered one of the largest environmental campaigns in the history of Malaysia. Prior to the demonstration in June, The Green Assembly held a series of activities which included a bicycle ride carrying the message that the plant should shut down on June 22nd.
There have been numerous street protests with tens of thousands of people and a 300-km walk from Kuantan to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of the country, from November 13 to 26, 2012, which gathered almost 20,000 people. The resistance against Lynas also managed to gather over 1,200,000 signatures to close down the factory, another historical milestone for the country. In addition, Malaysian activists have travelled to Australia to demonstrate against the company together with Australian groups twice in 2011 and have also met with political representatives. In addition, they were present in Lynas shareholders’ meetings in 2012 and 2013.
The Malaysian government has tried to stop the social mobilizations against Lynas, although without any success.
The organizations resisting the presence of the corporation in Gebeng have stated that the company did not carry out a detailed environmental impact study, did not follow the International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines and does not have a permanent waste storage facility where the plant would be generating 64,000 tonnes of radioactive waste, such as thorium. Lynas has proposed to process its radioactive waste into commercial products such as fertilizers and construction materials, for instance to build roads. This can be done through a residue dilution process to reduce its radioactive level. The community is completely opposed against this idea.
Another concern of the community is related to the fact that the industrial plant is located in a low lying area, surrounded by rich biodiversity, mangroves, wetlands, fisherfolk villages, rivers, and is also exposed to Monsoons every year and where large floods are common. The fear of an extreme climate event that could expose the radioactive residues is also present in the community.
The organizations resisting Lynas also warn about the alleged "double standard" in Lynas behavior. According to them, in Australian law, corporations are not allowed to directly sue individuals for defamation and yet in Malaysia they brought a defamation suit against a few committee members of the Save Malaysia Stop Lynas group. The suit has been withdrawn by Lynas but pending the assessment of damages against it for bringing the legal suit.
Malaysia seems to be reliving the history of the Bukit Merah struggle where a community in a place called Papan, Bukit Merah, in the state of Perak, in the 1980s had opposed a similar rare earths processing plant belonging to Asian Rare Earth Sdn Bhd, which was controlled by Japanese Mitsubishi Chemicals. This factory was forced to close down after a strong community resistance, legal actions and public pressure in Japan. What will eventually happen to Lynas is not known yet. However, the company is going through a serious financial situation and the future of its survival in Malaysia does not look very bright at the moment. .
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