Aung San Suu Kyi

Mine row in Myanmar tests hopes of reform

Protesters face losing livelihoods and a mountain they consider sacred to make way for a development that will feed China's demand for copper

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 December, 2012, 3:45am

Six camps used to dot the lush countryside around the Letpadaung Mountain near Monywa, in Upper Myanmar. They were set up by protesters against a vast copper mine project. On Thursday morning, three were cleared off in an unexpectedly violent crackdown by police.

In the early hours, riot police used water cannons and smoke bombs to break up the protest that has disrupted operations at the mine, run by Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper, for about two weeks.

The operation, carried out several hours before democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was scheduled to make a visit to Monywa to hear the protesters' grievances, left dozens of Buddhist monks and villagers wounded.

Days earlier, the South China Morning Post spent time with the protesters and the villagers who face losing their land and livelihood to make way for the mine, which will help feed China's seemingly insatiable appetite for natural resources

"I am pessimistic about the outcome of our protest" said Pagata, a Buddhist monk from a monastery in Pakokku township.

The Letpadaung mine, located in the south of Sagaing division, about a three-hour bus ride from Mandalay, Myanmar's second largest city, has been a controversial project since its infancy.

First initiated in the 1980s, past investors included the country's former Ministry of Mines and a Canadian firm named Ivanhoe Mines. The Canadian firm eventually pulled out, and in 2010 a joint-venture called Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper was signed between the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings and China's Wanbao Company.

The production period for the vast mining project is set at 30 years. The office of the joint venture sits at the foot of the Letpadaung Mountain, surrounded by rows of neat little gated houses, which are supposed to house the mine workers.

Villagers have complained that the companies have confiscated more than 3,000 hectares of land for a planned expansion.

Other grievances include pollution coming from the mine's waste and health worries.

Several hundred villagers, farmers, Buddhist monks and activists came from nearby towns and as far as from Yangon to voice their concern and anger at a project they consider to be a death sentence not only to a mountain they love, but also to the only way they can earn a living.

"We do not want money, we want our farms. We don't want to move from the mountains," said Thwe Thwe Win, 27, one of the leaders of the 1,000-strong protest movement.

"If the company uses the land, how can I live?" said Khimar Thin. The 35-year-old protester, her face painted with thanaka, the traditional paste made from ground bark and used as sunscreen, said she was worried about the survival of her family.

At the entrance to the office, a sign reads: "Putting people first, win-win co-operation, opening and innovation, pursuit of excellence." Next to it lays a protest camp made of several tents where about 60 villagers, monks and activists sit on large mats, waiting for the next demonstration in the afternoon.

The demonstrations, which have forced the suspension of the mine's operations since November 18, could only go on for a certain time as they posed a direct challenge to the government's authority.

Since 2010 and the introduction of reforms, the government has allowed a certain level of freedom of expression and protest that was unthinkable only a few years earlier. In the former capital Yangon, weekly journals such as Eleven Media, one of the most popular publications in the country, has in the past had regular headlines splashed on the front page about the villagers' demonstrations along with large pictures.

However, demonstrations about an expensive project involving natural resources, as well as Myanmar's military and its energy-hungry neighbour China, may have crossed the line.

"The government is already busy in Rakhine state and Kachin state," said Professor Ian Holliday, referring to the two states in western and northern Myanmar that are rife with ethnic violence. "It does not want to open a third front."

According to Holliday, dean of social sciences and professor of political science at the University of Hong Kong, Thursday's violence showed the end of the government's "tolerance for the reemergence of civil society and social protests".

The crackdown is the largest since the civilian government of President Thein Sein came to power in March last year.

Suu Kyi, the main opposition leader, called on Sunday for more transparency over the implementation of government projects. She has overall been very discreet in the affair and only visited Monywa on Thursday to meet the protesters. "She is not leading the debate here," said Holliday.

He compared the situation to her refusal to comment in public on the violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingyas Muslims.

"She is treading a fine line with the government."

When it comes to dealing with Chinese-backed projects, anti-Chinese sentiment is easy to stir among the population in Myanmar, who have a poor image of their powerful neighbour. After the popular uprising of 1988 and Beijing's embrace of Myanmar's military regime, popular sentiment against the Chinese deteriorated.

"Massive Chinese migration and purchases of real estate, takeovers of businesses and sensational incidents of abuses against local people, particularly in Upper Burma, have triggered intense public outrage," wrote Min Zin, an exiled Myanmese journalist and blogger for politics website Foreign Policy, in a paper called "Burmese Attitude toward Chinese: Portrayal of the Chinese in Contemporary Cultural and Media Works," published earlier this year in the Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs.

Anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar has come and gone over the years. It is stronger in Upper Myanmar now because the Chinese business influence is more prominent.

"There is an opposition sentiment coming from the population," said Renaud Egreteau, research assistant professor at the HK Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Hong Kong. He added that the discontent can be directed to other countries too.

"If a Thai or American company showed the same patterns of predation along with a tacit consent of the Myanmar authorities, the people would react the same way," said Egreteau.

U Aung Min, the minister of the president's office, who paid a private visit to the protesters on November 23, said on Monday that the government had to respect China and voiced his concerns about shutting down the whole project.

"There is a very small chance the project [will be] abandoned," said Holliday. "The government would not want another contract with China cancelled."

He was referring to the surprise announcement by Thein Sein in October last year of the suspension of a controversial Chinese-backed hydroelectric dam.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei declared in a briefing last Thursday that he hoped Myanmar would maintain a favourable environment for the Letpadaung copper mining project.

Holliday said: "It is a fact of geography: the shadow of China over Myanmar will always be there no matter what." He added that the US had only been in the picture for the past two years.

Around the protest camps and behind the Wanbao Company, the green slopes of Letpadaung Mountain stretch off into the background. Artificial hills about 20 metres in height are scattered around it. They are made of the debris that comes from the dynamite explosions on the mountain.

A Buddhist monk from Yangon, draped in a dark red robe and standing on top of a rock, said the government showed two different attitudes. "It is OK to let people on the street to greet President Obama, but it is not OK for us to demonstrate against land confiscation and environmental pollution. It is our human right!" He declined to be named.