KUALA LUMPUR — An investigation by lawyers and activists says that Burmese authorities used “excessive force” on protesters at the Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Division during a crackdown last Nov. 29.
The report, released today in Rangoon, says that police used weapons, “including military-issue white phosphorus weapons,” to burn camps and inflict second- and third-degree burns on over 100 monks and villagers at the protest site.
The publication of these findings—from an unofficial investigation undertaken by the Lawyers Network (Myanmar) and Justice Trust (USA)—comes two weeks after an official inquiry, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s opposition leader, missed a Jan. 31 deadline to publish its findings on the mine.
Roger Normand, director of Justice Trust, said that the actions of the Burmese police in carrying out a domestic law enforcement operation were out of the ordinary.
“It is unheard of for police to use incendiary military munitions against peaceful protesters during a law enforcement operation. This raises questions of senior-level command responsibility for resulting crimes and violations of people’s constitutional and human rights,” he said.
According to the report, on the morning of Nov. 29, “sometime before 3:00 am, the police threw a grenade just in front of the camp, next to the front line of protesters. The device sparked and fizzled like fireworks on the ground for several moments, then exploded with a loud sound and scattered many small white-yellow fireballs. Everything that the fireballs touched instantly burst into flames despite the area being soaked in water. The covering tarps and blankets used by protesters for shelter and protection caught fire. The monks’ robes and villagers’ clothing also caught fire.”
The report added that “the substance continued to burn through clothes, skin, and flesh with a bright white-yellow glow that lasted for several minutes. Those who were burned badly had skin and flesh fall off their bodies. The injured reported suffering intense pain.”
The researchers said in late January that the laboratory tests on material taken from the crackdown site indicated that white phosphorus had been used by police. The researchers said at the time that they were awaiting the publication of the Aung San Suu Kyi-led commission’s report before publishing their own findings. The lapsing of the Jan. 31 deadline was the second time that the report has been delayed, after an initial deadline of Dec. 31 was postponed.
The official commission was approved by Burma’s Parliament on Nov. 23, prior to the crackdown, raising concerns about whether the official investigation’s mandate would include looking into the police action on Nov. 29.
The Lawyers Network and Justice USA say that the Burma’s President Thein Sein “must ensure that a Government inquiry commission is given the mandate to investigate the police action and recommend prosecution for those found responsible for violations,” and added that Burmese officials as well as the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL) and its Chinese partner in the project, Wanbao, should be held accountable for any role the crackdown.
Prior to the crackdown, which prompted a government apology, the researchers say that local officials coerced and tricked villagers and farmers into giving up their land and subsequently denied them permission to protest.
Aung Thein of the Lawyers Network (Myanmar) said that tactics used by officials to get villagers to give up their land were illegal. “The use of coercion and fraud to force villagers to sign contracts is illegal. Under Burmese law these contracts are invalid and can be rescinded by the villagers,” he said.
The report says that local officials stepped outside their mandate as civil servants, effectively representing the interests of Wanbao and UMEHL in their dealings with local residents.
The mine has been running under its current ownership since 2010, with Wanbao saying it plans to invest US $1 billion at Letpadaung over 30 years. Wanbao and UMEHL said they have paid out over $5 million in compensation to farmers for land used in the project expansion, which the companies say will allow the production about 100,000 tonnes of 99.9 percent pure copper a year, with 78 percent of workers at the plant to be local hires.
Letpadaung is by some estimates the biggest copper mine in Southeast Asia, and is run as a joint venture Wanbao and UMEHL.
The mine has long been shrouded in controversy, with Canadian company Ivanhoe divesting itself of its holding in 2007 after pressure from rights activists and after disputes over revenue with the Burmese military government. Wanbao’s parent company, Chinese state-owned arms manufacturer Norinco, subsequently acquired rights to the mine.
Norinco President Zhang Guoqing met President Thein Sein and senior army officials in the capital Naypyidaw on Christmas Day, less than a week before the first deadline for Suu Kyi’s commission to complete its work.
After the meeting, Burma’s Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann was reported by China’s Xinhua news agency as saying that Burma would “responsibly implement the agreements between governments and between companies, including that between the Norinco Group and the [Burmese] side, stressing bilateral cooperation will not weaken despite some difficulties.”