Around a thousand farmers from 26 villages in the Letpadaung area of Sagaing Division prepared to file a lawsuit on Monday against the owners of a copper mine for allegedly using force and intimidation against protesters demanding the shutdown of the project.
“We are suing them for destroying our monasteries, taking our land and threatening us,” said Thwae Thwae Win, one of the leaders of the group. “If we don’t take this action, we will have to deal with even greater injustices in the future.”
The farmers said that despite their repeated calls on the owners of the mine to stop dumping waste on their fields, the company’s only response has been to threaten and insult them.
There have also been reports that the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, Ltd. (UMEHL), a military-owned conglomerate that is joint owner of the mine with China’s Wan Bao Company, plans to sue 16 protests leaders, including Thwae Thwae Win, for defamation.
“We heard on the radio that UMEHL is preparing to sue us, but we haven’t received any notice from the police or the court yet,” said Thwae Thwae Win.
“We haven’t done anything wrong, so we’ve decided to file a counter-suit to win back our basic rights. We will do everything we can to stop this project and protect the environment,” she added.
According to the farmers, the police allowed only three representatives from each village to register as plaintiffs in the case against the UMEHL and Wan Bao, while other villagers were only permitted to sign as witnesses.
“The police said they will inform us at 4 pm tomorrow about whether they would submit the case to the court or not,” said one farmer who asked not to be named.
The farmers said they are demanding adequate compensation for damages suffered since the mining project began; the return of their lands; an end to forced relocation; and a complete halt to the project, which they say has inflicted immense harm on the environment.
One focus of the protests has been the decimation of the Sabae and Kyay Sin mountains, while ongoing pollution of local farmland has also been a major source of grievance.
The protests, which began on July 2 and intensified the following month when several leaders were temporarily taken into police custody, have attracted growing support from local villagers and rights groups.
Like the movement against the Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam hydro-power project in Kachin State, the Letpadaung protests have grown from a local expression of anger into a national cause célèbre, with many around the country now calling for a suspension of the copper mine on environmental grounds.
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.