The Australian government can do nothing to stop the mining giant from proceeding with its rare earth project in Malaysia.
Leading figure in the anti-Lynas campaign, Kuantan PKR lawmaker Fuziah Salleh, said the position of the Australian government was made clear by its Deputy High Commissioner in Malaysia Arthur Spyrou when they met here today.
“The Australian government cannot do anything,” Fuziah told reporters after handing a memorandum of protest to the High Commissioner this evening.
“But what we want them to do is to put a check on Lynas,” she added.
Fuziah was among those leading a peaceful street protest against the mining giant in front of the High Commission’s office on Jalan Yap Kwan Seng here.
About 300 people comprising environmental NGO members and opposition supporters thronged the busy streets to voice their strong opposition to Lynas’ plan to build a RM700-million rare earth refinery plant in the Gebeng industrial vicinity in Kuantan, Pahang.
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Protesters, including Gebeng residents, were seen in black anti-Lynas T-shirts with “Save Malaysia” written on them. They shouted “Destroy Lynas” as battalions of police and anti-riot squad kept watch nearby.
The project, estimated to generate RM8 billion in the first few years of operation, sparked an uproar among residents and environmentalists who feared it could be a repeat of the radiation disaster similar to Bukit Merah, Perak, in 1987.
Processing rare earth yields copious amount of thorium, a highly radioactive material.
The Bukit Merah disaster has been linked to eight cases of leukaemia, with seven resulting in death. The plant was closed following public anger, but the refinery is still undergoing a cleaning-up process worth RM300 million.
Your company, your responsibility
“As your country is the originator of this dangerous material, it is only right that your country take responsibility for its presence in this country,” he said.
Jiam said that the efforts by Lynas to educate the public on the plant’s safety through campaigns were not convincing.
Proof of this is the Australian government’s hesitation to process rare earth in its own backyard, he added.
A greenlight for the project could see Malaysia break China’s chokehold on the rare earth industry.
Observers said the money involved was too big to ignore for a country like Malaysia coping with a weak economy.
Besides, they said that letting go of an opportunity to become the only country next to China with the ability to process rare earth seemed too lucrative to miss.
Rare earth metals are crucial to the manufacture of high-technology products such as smartphones, hybrid cars and bombs.
Lynas exploiting outdated laws
But public pressure has forced the government to halt all construction works on the plant, pending a review from an “independent panel of experts”.
Observers said the government initiative to set up the panel was clearly aimed at convincing the public of the plant’s safety instead of finding facts.
But today’s protest highlighted the public scepticism towards the independent panel. The leaders of the anti-Lynas campaign felt it was more fruitful to pressure the Australian government than their own to get the project cancelled.
“There was a lot of goodwill from the Australian High Commission,” said Jiam on the meeting between them. “This proves their friendliness to the Malaysian people and they have promised to take this back to their government.”
But he, however, noted the reluctance of the Australian government to pressure Lynas to stop. “They didn’t want this industry to stop,” Jiam said, referring to the response given by the Australian High Commission in their one-hour meeting.
The anti-Lynas campaign will continue with efforts to stop project, said Jiam, despite the government’s persistence to push on with it.