U.S. Pushed to Reopen Bangladesh Coal Mine Closed by Violent Protests

With U.S. investors on the hook, U.S. ambassador urged Bangladesh's energy adviser to reopen a mine closed in 2006 after violent protests

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US diplomats privately pressured the Bangladeshi government into reinstating a controversial coal mine which had been closed following violent protests, a leaked diplomatic cable shows.

The US ambassador to Dhaka, James Moriarty, last year held talks with the country’s chief energy adviser, urging him to approve plans by the British company Global Coal Management (GCM) to begin open-cast coal mining in the country’s Phulbari area, in the west of Bangladesh.

GCM were forced to shut down operations in the country in 2006 after a grassroots demonstration turned violent. Three people were killed as soldiers fired at protesters, and several hundred were injured.

But the company has continued to maintain a strong presence in the country and has continued to lobby for rights to operate the coal mine ever since. Earlier this month, Steve Bywater, GCM’s chairman, said that a Bangladeshi parliamentary standing committee had recommended that the country moves towards extracting coal reserves using open-cut mining methods.

The government of Bangladesh has not yet given any firm assurances over whether they will give the coal mine project the go-ahead. It remains a deeply contentious issue, with activists fearing the country’s natural resources are due to be sold off to a string of foreign investors.

Revelations that the US government continued to push for the Bangladeshi energy adviser to reinstate the plans are likely to cause greater anger among activists, who last month staged a “long march” from Phulbari to Dhaka to demand Asia Energy leaves the country.

In a cable posted by WikiLeaks which was sent in July last year, Moriarty says he had urged Tawfiq Elahi Chowdhury, the prime minister’s energy adviser, to authorise coal mining, saying that “open-pit mining seemed the best way forward”.

Later on in the cable, Moriarty privately noted: “Asia Energy, the company behind the Phulbari project, has sixty percent US investment. Asia Energy officials told the Ambassador they were cautiously optimistic that the project would win government approval in the coming months.”

However, in the cable Moriarty also notes that Chowdhury admitted the coal mine was “politically sensitive in the light of the impoverished, historically oppressed tribal community residing on the land”. Chowdhury, according to the cable, then agrees to build support for the project through the parliamentary process.

GCM declined to comment.