Malaysian Police Still Holding Sydney Rare Earth Mining Protestor


An environmental campaigner from Sydney has been detained in a Malaysian police cell since Sunday afternoon after she was arrested during a demonstration at Australian owned Lynas rare earth refinery plant near the port city of Kuantan in Eastern Malaysia.

Natalie Lowrey, who is a New Zealander but has lived in Sydney for many years, was among 16 activists arrested by the police for taking part in the protest outside the Australian rare earth processor Lynas Corp Advanced Material Plant (LAMP) . More than 1000 Malaysians were involved in the protest.

Lowrey, a founder of the Australian campaign, is the only activist who has so far not been released. She has not been charged but has been told she is being investigated under Immigration and Penal Codes.

Lowrey is detained at Kuantan police station in a block with 15-20 other women. Each has a 3.3 cell and can sit with each other in a space. They get no exercise and under flouro lights and camera surveillance 24 hours a day.

The Malaysian Penal Code has a penalty of up to 2 years imprisonment for taking part in an unlawful assembly after a police request to disperse. Under the Immigration act, a person can be prosecuted for breach of entry permit. campaigns in support of local green movements, including Himpunan Hijau and Save Malaysia Stop Lynas (SMSL) which includes thousands of Malaysians who aim to close down LAMP because of health concerns about toxic emissions from the plant, and the disposal of its radioactive waste.

Local police obtained a last minute court order before Saturday’s protest preventing demonstrators reaching the plant, and roadblocks were set up stopping demonstrators entering the “restricted area”. Lowrey then joined a peaceful sit down.

Yesterday, SMSL issued a statement condemning violence used by police against the protesters, describing one person as being  “brutally manhandled resulting in head and bodily injuries.”

The group called for an investigation into the police actions. Several demonstrators were arrested including one who SMSL describe as being “floored and kicked and beaten with a wooden baton on his back and head, resulting in bruises sustained on his lower abdomen and the head”.

Some local Malaysians arrested accused the police of using steel knuckles to punch them on various parts of the body while they were held in custody in the police van.

The protesters are “everyday people who have families in Kuantan and are concerned about their future generations,” said Chairperson of Friends of the Earth International (FoEI) Jagoda Munic, who has appealed to the Malaysian government to drop all charges and release Lowrey.

Lynas ships rare earths concentrate from its mine at Mount Weld in Western Australia and processes the material at its massive plant near Kuantan.

Rare earths are used in high tech equipment, including smart phones, TVs, wind turbines and cars.

The company chooses to process the radioactive material in Malaysia because it is cheaper than processing in Australia.

It has had a tax-free holiday for 10 years. It took only several weeks to get state local environmental approvals for the complex plant to be constructed, in a country which has much looser environmental regulation.

As New Matilda reported in its 2012 Lynas investigations (SEE LINKS BELOW) thousands of Malaysians and supporters around the world have been protesting against the Australian plant, which was granted a temporary licence to operate without any detailed plans for a permanent storage plant being in place.

As Malaysian campaigners have pointed out at annual protests outside the company’s annual general meetings in Sydney, this would never have been allowed to happen in Australia.

Despite community opposition and political confusion about whether the Malaysian government would force Lynas to export its waste rather than store it in Malaysia, the company secretly shipped rare earths in Malaysia at the end of 2012. Since then the plant has begun processing although it has no approved plan for storing its waste. 

Before the march, Lowry and other Australian Stop Lynas activists issued a statement explaining their reasons for supporting the protest.

“We believe Malaysians lives are just as valuable as Australians. In Australia no company would get approval for this type of project let alone a refinery of this scale which risks both human health and the environment,” said  Lowrey.

As the deadline for the expiry of this temporary license approaches in September, the company claims to have found a site for a permanent storage facility but has refused to state where it will be. New Matilda has asked the company for this information and will post an update if it is received.

SMSL is demanding that the Malaysian government does not grant Lynas a permanent license.

This would be a death knell for the plant, which has been plagued by problems.

Production is well under target and the share price has fallen to 13 cents per share.

Lynas has so far raised $850 million from shareholders but is only valued at $350 million. The company has recently been raising more funds to keep it viable and is on its third chief executive in seven months.

Last December a young engineer fell and drowned while he was trying to take water samples from the Lynas toxic waste pond.  Lynas rejects any responsibility for the accident.

The company’s continuing problems, as well as massive Malaysian opposition to its activities is not only bad news for shareholders, but it is feeding into concerns that the company will go broke and leave a life-threatening radioactive mess behind it, as occurred with a Mitsubishi-owned Asia Rare Earth plant at Bukit Merah in Western Malaysia.

William De Cruz, President of Global Bersih, which campaigns for a reform of the Malaysian electoral system, links the brutality to more general concerns about the lack of democratic rights in Malaysia.

He told New Matilda: “Malaysians everywhere must feel more and more dejected over these latest ugly developments, and the serious allegations of police brutality.

“Citizens and their supporters who are trying to prevent an environmental catastrophe in a heavily populated area are being treated like criminals.

“The truth is they are very well informed Malaysians who have been trying to do everything by the book, keeping within the system, to protect their land, their livelihood, their health, even their lives… people feel like they can no longer trust the police and the courts to protect their fundamental rights as citizens.

New Matilda’s 2012 investigation of this issue can be found here.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.