RANGOON — Tensions are high in villages near the controversial Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Division, after local authorities dispatched about 100 policemen and warned several protest camps to disperse, local villagers said on Tuesday.
About 150 villagers and several local Buddhist monks have resumed protests against the Chinese-backed mine early this month after a controlled explosion at the mine allegedly led to damage to a local Buddhist pagoda.
Ko Min, a protestor from Moegyopyin village, said authorities were warning the protestors, who are camping on several local mountains, to leave the area.
“This [Tuesday] morning, Sagaing Division Minister of Security [and Border Affairs] Kyi Naing called the protesting monks to withdraw from the camp,” he said. “From witnessing the increase in police and the news from our sources, we believe they plan to use force to drive us away.”
“More than a hundred of police are located near Leikkun and Inngyin mountains, where the protesting camps are located. We are worried about a brutal crackdown again,” Ko Min said. He added that one protestor was detained at Sarlingyi Township police station on Tuesday morning after he alerted the protest camps about the approaching policemen.
Ko Min said demonstrations would continue despite the heavy security presence as villagers were determined to “prevent the destruction of religious buildings.”
In early November, a blast at the Letpadaung mine reportedly caused cracks in the walls of an ordination hall and a pagoda established by a Buddhist monk Letti Sayadaw, who was an influential spiritual leader several decades ago.
Government mouthpiece The New Light of Myanmar on Sunday sought to dispel claims that religious buildings had been damaged as a result of mining operations.
“Buddhist monks and local people were satisfied with the condition of religious buildings in the Letpadaung copper mine area during a tour of inspection,” said the paper, which added, “Besides, there is no evidence that the pagoda and the Sima [ordination hall] were built by Letti Sayadaw.”
The Letpadaung copper mine in northwestern Burma has long been a source of conflict, as local villagers claim that the mine has polluted their water sources and farmland, while they also feel they received unfair compensation for their loss of farmland to the project.
The Burmese public views the megaproject with suspicion as it is owned by China’s Wanbao mining firm and the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL), a huge and secretive Burma Army-owned conglomerate.
A parliamentary committee led by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi reviewed the project earlier this year and said it should continue if the company properly addressed the mine’s social and environmental impacts.
In July, a new contract agreement was signed between Wanbao, UMEHL and the government, which stipulates that Wanboa and UMEHL will receive 49 percent of the profits, while Burma’s government gains 51 percent. The deal represents a huge increase in government revenues.
The new contract also states that the project will allocate US $1 million for corporate social responsibility and $2 million for environmental preservation annually, in addition to increasing compensation to affected farmers.
Local villagers, however, continue to feel that the huge mine is negatively affecting their livelihoods and complain they have not received adequate compensation yet. They believe that the damage to the pagoda is the latest sign that the firm is neglecting their demands.
“We were saddened that the mining company breaks the agreements to conserve these religious buildings. That’s why we decided to continue the protest until the authorities fulfill the agreements and follow the recommendation of Letpadaung investigation commission report,” a protesting monk named U Sandar Thiri said.
Khin San Hlaing, a lawmaker from Sagaing Division who was on the parliamentary commission reviewing the project, said the mining company and local authorities were not implementing the report’s recommendations properly.
“We’ve submitted a report to Parliament saying that the mining company is going beyond the report, but it was not discussed yet,” Khin San Hlaing said, adding that local authorities were accusing protestors of violating Article 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code that prohibits trespassing.
She said she feared violence between authorities might flare up again. “Since there’s no transparency and the mining company and the authorities failed to take responsibilities, the unrests in this area will never end.”
Last year, the project sparked large protests at the mining site and across Burma. On Nov. 29, 2012, police launched a brutal raid on a protest camp, firing phosphorus smoke grenades into the camp that caused severe burns to many of the protesting monks. Work at the mine was subsequently suspended, but resumed in September.