88 Gen Leader Puts Cronies on Notice over Mining Project

By Hpyo Wai Tha 1 October 2012

RANGOON — Prominent Burmese student leader Min Ko Naing sent a strong message on Sunday to businesses that rely on government connections to steamroll over the rights of ordinary citizens, warning them that the days when Burmese felt too powerless to resist such abuses are over.

Speaking at a forum in Rangoon on “Saving the Natural Beauty of the Letpadaung Mountains and Chindwin River,” the leading member of the 88 Generation Students group said that Burmese need to keep pushing back whenever cronies try to push the envelop in exploiting the country’s resources.

He also said that the cronies’ modus operandi of “mistreat first, negotiate later” was “out of fashion,” and could lead to significant losses to companies that did not respect the will of the people.

“First, they try [to take what they want]. If people remain silent, they keep going and make big money. But if people start to retaliate, for example by staging protests, they tone down their approach and try to negotiate,” he explained.

“So if the people are not smart enough to collectively defend their rights, you cronies hit the jackpot. But if they do stand up for their rights, you’d better be ready for major losses.”

Held to discuss growing public concerns over a controversial mining project in Monywa, Sagaing Division, the forum highlighted the increasingly widespread practice of illegal land confiscation and other social and environmental issues as a feature of Burma’s push to exploit natural resources.

The Monywa copper mine, a joint-venture between the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL) and China’s Wan Bao Company, has come under fire over the past month after more than 300 residents from 12 villages in the Letpadaung mountain range staged protests to demand its closure, citing environmental destruction, forced relocation and illegal land confiscation.

More than 7,800 acres of land from 26 villages under the shadow of the mountain range have been confiscated to make way for the project that began last year.

The forum attracted about 300 people, including environmental activists, lawyers, engineers, Buddhist monks and villagers from the project area.

“The authorities just told us to leave. But if we move, we have to leave behind the farmland we have been tilling for generations. When I asked them about the land, they just said there was nothing they could do,” said Thwe Thwe Win, who was briefly detained for her participation in the protest last month.

“I wonder whether the authorities are protecting us or the UMEHL or the Chinese firm,” said the native of Wet Hme, a village in the affected area. “What we want is the closure of the project.”

Copper mining in Monywa dates back to the 1980s, when the former Burmese Ministry of Mining-1 had joint-venture projects with various investors, including Canada-based Ivanhoe Mines.

Aung Kyaw Zan, who was a project engineer for six months at one of the copper mines in the area in 1988, recalled how waste discharged from the mine where he worked exposed people living nearby to serious health risks.

“People had skin infections because acid discharged from the mine sank into the ground and contaminated the water that they used. In the end, the water was no longer drinkable at all,” he said.

Ant Maung, a famous poet from Monywa, said that shutting down the project on the Chindwin River basin was essential, not just socially and environmentally, but also spiritually.

However, UMEHL officials gave no indication that they intended to give in to the demands of the villagers.

“In the beginning, we had no problem with the locals. They accepted the compensation we offered. Now they are demanding the closure of the project,” said Win Kyi, a senior UNEHL official.

“We don’t have any plan to cancel the project. I think there is some political instigation behind the demand,” he added.

Min Ko Naing said the 88 Student Generation group isn’t rejecting all development projects, but wants to push the government to guarantee greater transparency.

“People have the right to know. They should be informed about things such as which countries want to do what here. They must know how the profit from those projects are going to be used. Why doesn’t the government dare to share that kind of information with the people?”

The student leader added that most of the projects with some foreign investment in the country today are the legacy of the former military regime, and that people didn’t know anything about them until they had started.

“Now I want to make it clear is that people are not happy with deals made with the military regime in the past, because they don’t know whether those deals will bring them more harm than good.”