In the dead of night on November 22, 100 containers of concentrated rare earth ore mined in Western Australia began to be transported, under heavy police escort, through the port of Kuantan to a new refinery built by Australian company Lynas.
This took place just two days after 19 local residents travelled to Sydney to protest at the company's annual general meeting and while another group of protesters were on a 300 kilometre protest march to Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur over the issue.
In its final leg, this long march (called the "Green Walk") swelled to a massive 20,000 on November 25.
Wong Kim Ka, one of the 19 who brought their opposition to Sydney returned in time to join the end of the march. He told Green Left Weekly:
"Yesterday we went and joined the other group of Anti Lynas people whom walk 14 days from Kuantan to Dataran Merdeka [Malaysia's iconic Independence Square] in Kuala Lumpur. It was amazing: 5000 people started out but the time we reached Dataran, more than 20000 people had joined.
"I feel that the people of Malaysia have taken a strong stand against Lynas. The people have delivered a strong message to PM Najib that if he does not want to send Lynas away, we will put him away!"
Residents are furious that Lynas has been issued with a temporary operating licence even though it does not have a clear plan for dealing with the radioactive and toxic waste that the refinery will produce.
Save Malaysia Stop Lynas (SMSL) sent the protest delegation to Sydney. Its chairperson Tan Bun Teet told Green Left Weekly the company's CEO Nicholas Curtis “brushed aside” the local residents concerns when confronted at the AGM.
“Some shareholders asked that we be allowed to let them know what is actually happening over there [in Kuantan]. But again we were denied this opportunity.”
Bun Teet and supporters with shares or proxies tried to voice their objections inside the meeting as a colourful and vocal protest took place outside. “Lynas, Lynas you must go!” they chanted, “We don't want your toxic waste!”
About 400 local residents protested peacefully outside the Kuantan port on November 23. They were met with a big police presence and intimidated by a group of about 100 thugs who arrived on motorbikes. A journalist from Sin Chew Daily was assaulted when he tried to photograph them.
Bun Teet said this was not the first time thugs were used against opponents of Lynas.
“We have been threatened by hooligans when we go to some villages to distribute information about Lynas and one person who gave testimony to a hearing of the International Atomic Energy Agency on the plant was assaulted by thugs when we came out. This made us feel unsafe about attending the hearing.”
SMSL activists said that secrecy and irregularity have long been a feature of the attempt to start up the Lynas refinery, which was granted a 12-year tax exemption by the notoriously corrupt Barisan Nasional government of Malaysia.
Kuantan resident Haji Ismail Abu Bakar attended the Sydney protest. He has an outstanding appeal against the temporary operating licence issued to Lynas. He and other residents had succeeded in obtaining a court order for a two-month suspension of the licence until November 8.
But the normal time taken for Lynas’ ore to reach Kuantan from the Western Australian port of Fremantle is one month.
Abu Bakar said: “Has Lynas and the WA government acted in contempt of the Malaysian court to allow the shipment to commence when a suspension order was still in place until November 8 or has the Malaysian government granted the import licence in contempt of the court order?
“We have had enough of this government here in Malaysia,” said Ram Govindasamy, another Kuantan resident who brought his protest to the Lynas AGM. “Deploying public-funded police force to escort Lynas a foreign company that pays no tax adds insult to injury. When a government is reduced to doing this, we the rakyat [people] have no choice but to vote it out.”
General elections are due early next year in Malaysia. Bun Teet said the opposition front, Pakatan Rakyat, had “pledged to scrap the [Lynas] project if they come to power”.
On the final day of the Green Walk, numbers swelled to 20,000. Photo by Ben Chang.
Another photo of the end of the 300km long march from Kuantan to Kuala Lumpur.