Lynas and Malaysia’s Power Politics

And so it begins – in earnest.

Malaysia’s international trade and industry minister accused Lynas this week of “jumping the gun” and failing to engage transparently with residents living near its soon-to-be-complete Kuantan-based advanced materials plant.

The locals oppose the project due to fears of radiation pollution.

That’s according to a Malaysian Insider interview with Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed, who slammed the Australian company for pre-empting the government by repeatedly projecting start dates for its controversial RM1.5 billion plant in Kuantan.

“They have no business to pre-empt the (Atomic Energy Licensing) board. No business at all to issue these kind of statements and we have reprimanded them,” Mustapa told the newspaper.

Lynas, which said in June the $200 million refining plant should be online by the end of 2011, had reckoned the Atomic Energy Licensing Board should give the go-head for the project sometime this quarter, after 10 areas of improvement identified in an International Atomic Energy Agency report were met.

But Malaysia said last week it had asked for changes and additional information as recently as September 19 from the Sydney-based firm with regard to its safety submissions, the newspaper said.

The government has said that it would ensure that Lynas complied with those IAEA atomic recommendations, including well-laid out plans for decommissioning and remediation of radioactive waste; and it would not allow the company to import raw material from its Mount Weld mine in Western Australia. And, to date, no import license has been granted.

[RareMetalBlog is expecting to interview a Lynas spokesperson in the coming hours to get an official response from the company, which didn’t appear in the story; another blog on the issue or an update to this one is forthcoming – ed.]

Minister Mustapa said in the interview that he understands the alarm of local residents over the project and has told Lynas repeatedly it “has not done enough engagement.”

“They’ve underestimated but learnt their lesson. They have been more transparent over the last one or two months.

“But I saw them last week in Perth, it’s still not enough,” the Jeli MP said, adding that the failure of both Lynas and the government to engage from the start has resulted in “some people who cannot be persuaded.”

The timing of Mustapa’s comments are interesting, of course; Malaysian issues are never far removed from the next election and the struggle for national power.  

The ruling coalition National Front, in power for decades, is heading into another national election, which could be held any time within the next 12 months.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim – he has been a high-profile thorn in the ruling coalition’s side since he was ousted as Deputy Prime Minister in the late-1990s – headed up the largest mass protest the country had seen since the run-up to the last election in 2008, where the opposition gained important inroads, weakening the ruling coalition.

The police were heavyhanded in putting down this latest protest, where more than 1,400 were arrested and 12 injured, including Anwar, who warned the government that it may face a “hibiscus revolution” unless activists’ demands are met for electoral reform and an end to “dirty politics,” according to a Guardian Newspaper report at the time.

Just last week, Kuantan MP Fusia Salleh, who has led protests against the Lynas plant, accused Minister Mustapa of being a “Lynas spokesman,” according to the Malaysian Insider.

Mustapa denied the accusation, saying it was “akin to calling me a traitor.” He said the government isn’t colluding with Lynas; that no one is trying to ride roughshod over public safety.

“These guys (those opposing the plant) have been painting the government as if we are not worried about human safety,” he told Malaysian Insider.