In defiance of a local government trespassing act and a police roadblock, some 1,000 miners, monks and members of the general public in Sagaing walked to the highest point of the Letpadaung mountain range on Friday to make merit at a Buddhist pagoda.
The march represented the latest in a series of protests against a copper mining project in the area.
“We want to create awareness that it is not only our farmlands, but also religious buildings such as monasteries, that have been seized and confiscated due to the mining project,” said a farmer who participated in Friday’s march.
Although police officers initially blocked the route to Shwe Myin Tin Mountain where A-Nu-Myi Kat Kyaw Pagoda is located, they relented after negotiating with the Buddhist monks who were leading the protest. Representatives from each of the 26 villages that are affected by the land seizures also participated.
“There are no more monasteries left in the area for us,” said the farmer. “We only have that pagoda [ A-Nu-Myi Kat Kyaw Pagoda] on the hill where the abbot lives. We all used to go there every year to make merit, pray and place gold leaf on the pagoda, and we wanted to do the same this year.”
The Letpadaung protesters said that on Friday evening they plan to light 26 fire balloons, representing the 26 affected villages, to promote their opposition to the mining project. An environment awareness concert featuring traditional Burmese songs will follow in Wat Hmae Village.
“We believe the president, the government and the persons responsible for this copper mine will take action soon,” said a farming community leader from Wat Hmae. “We will continue these protests and campaigns—no matter how long it takes—until we reach our destiny.”
In a recent interview with Washington-based Radio Free Asia, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said that the root of the problem with the Letpadaung mining project is a lack of transparency from the ruling government.
Letpadaung is situated in a watershed area nearby the confluence of two of Burma’s most important rivers, the Irrawaddy and the Chindwin, around 15 miles west of Monywa. The farmers of this area began airing their complaints and demands for adequate compensation and the return of farmland on July 2.
Tensions were raised in August as more villagers joined the farmers’ protests. Later it began to focus on the closure of copper mining in the area by highlighting the decimation of nearby Sabae and Kyay Sin mountains due to similar projects in the past as well as farmland polluted by waste products from the work site.
Civil society groups from as far afield as the former capital Rangoon have since become involved, actively publicizing the preservation of Letpadaung mountain range and conservation of the local ecosystem.
Copper mining in the area started in 1980 with joint ventures between former Burmese Ministry of Mining-1 and various investors, including Canada-based Ivanhoe Mines.
In 2011 the copper mining project is jointly run by the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. and China’s Wan Bao Company and more than 7,800 acres of land from 26 surrounding villages were confiscated.