Bangladesh hit by violent protests over British firm's coal mine plan

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The Independent Online

Bangladesh has been brought to a standstill by a general strike and violent protests against a British company's plans to develop a huge open coal mine.

Protesters accused the company, Asia Energy, of stripping Bangladesh of its resources and forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes.

One policeman was killed when he was hit by a stone, and several demonstrators were injured in police baton charges in the capital, Dhaka. At the weekend, six people were shot dead by security forces in a protest at the site of the proposed mine.

Asia Energy plc is planning a $1.1bn (£578m) investment in mining 570 million tons of coal at Phulbari, in northern Bangladesh. The company says the mine will earn Bangladesh billions of dollars in profit and provide much-needed fuel for power generation. It is negotiating for backing from the Asian Development Bank and the US Ex-Im Bank.

But the mine's opponents say it will displace more than 100,000 people, destroy hundreds of thousands of trees and damage the environment.

Over the weekend huge numbers of people, many of them armed with rocks and machetes, converged at the site of the proposed mine in Phulbari. Witnesses put the number as high as 30,000. The police called on the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles for backup, and they opened fire into the crowd, killing six and wounding more than 300.

"The reason this is so explosive is that relocating people is a much bigger issue here than in the West," said Sharyar Khan of Bangladesh's Daily Star newspaper. "Bangladesh is already so crowded people feel there is nowhere else to go. They have very little and they feel if you take away their land you are taking away what little they have. That is why they react so desperately."

Asia Energy says 40,000 people will be displaced, and has promised to build them new homes in purpose-built towns away from the site.

But the issue is complicated by the fact that many of those who will be displaced - the exact figure is disputed - are members of the Santal indigenous tribal people. Like most tribal groups in South Asia, they do not have any land deeds or other documents proving ownership of their land, but their families have lived on it for centuries. Many of the Santals fear they will miss out on being rehoused because they do not have the paperwork.

For them, the deforestation issue is important, too. Most still live traditional lives, cooking on firewood. The mine's opponents say it will destroy 2.5 million trees; Asia Energy says it will destroy 800,000.

But Asia Energy says the protests have been politically motivated. "What you had was a lot of rent-a-crowd," said David Lenigas, a director of the company. "They were busing them in from Dhaka.

"The protests are being organised by a group that has connections to far-left political groups, and the opposition has seen an opportunity in them ahead of the elections. We've done surveys in the area and 95 per cent of the local people support the project."

The Bangladeshi government has been scrabbling to contain the discontent, insisting the project will go ahead as planned. Bangladesh suffers from drastic power shortages: there are daily six-hour power cuts in the business districts of Dhaka.

Until recently, the country generated all its electricity from gas, but its gas reserves are running out, and the government is desperate to tap its massive reserves of coal.

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