Activists, Locals Reject Letpadaung Inquiry

By Lawi Weng & Thet Swe Aye 12 March 2013

RANGOON—Activists and the victims of a brutal crackdown on a protest against a Chinese-backed copper mine have rejected the results of the newly-released parliamentary inquiry into the incident, as it failed to hold any officials responsible for the violence.

The protestors vowed to continue their campaign against the mine in northwestern Burma, despite the fact that the inquiry said that the project can continue.

In a Nov. 29 raid police fired incendiary devices into a protesters camp outside the Letpadaung mine in Sagaing Division, which caused severe burns among about 100 monks and villagers. It was the worst case of state-sponsored violence since reforms began under President Thein Sein in 2011.

The parliamentary inquiry chaired by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was highly anticipated as the mine has become a national flashpoint for communities, rights activists and environmental groups.

The ten-page report, published in state-run Burmese-language newspaperson Tuesday, said police had used smoke bombs containing phosphorus that could cause burns on persons in the vicinity of the igniting devices.

The commission however, failed to hold any officials accountable for the events. Instead it concludes that Burmese police require crowd-control training and it adds, “We want to suggest that the police should check the material that they will use and what its effects are, before an anti-riot crackdown.” The commission also appears to make reference to the protesters, who included “some people who violated the rule of law.”

Thein Than Oo of the Upper Burma Lawyers Network said in a reaction that the report had failed to properly investigate the Nov. 29 crackdown. “This commission result is not enough and we can’t rely on them,” he said, adding that many commission members were too close to the government to hold an independent inquiry.

“If the protesters violated the law, how about the riot police? They also violated the laws. The government should investigate both sides and mete out the punishments,” said Thein Than Oo. His organization tested the smoke canisters and also found they contained white phosphorus in January.

The commissions’ report acknowledges that the Letpadaung mine has environmental consequences and that farmers were forcibly evicted from their land to make way for the project. It advises the mining company to compensate the farmers, but concludes that the controversial mining activity can continue.

Commission chair Suu Kyi reportedly told reporters in Naypyidaw that she would travel to Letpadaung on Wednesday to discuss the report’s findings with the affected local community.

Zavana, a senior Buddhist monk who was among the crackdown victims, said the report’s findings were unacceptable to local farmers. “I will go and meet local people tomorrow here. Then, we will discuss what to do next. We will continue our protest,” he said.

The monk added that Suu Kyi should “not close her eyes” to the suffering of the local people affected by the project.

Chit Khin, who heads campaign group Save Letpadaung Mountain Committee, said it rejected the commission’s report. “We request a total shutdown of the project. Our committee we will do whatever it takes to help the Letpadaung residents, until the absolute shutdown of the project,” he said.

The Letpadaung Copper Mine project is a joint venture between the Burmese military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL) and its Chinese partner, the Wanbao company, which is a subsidiary of state-owned arms manufacturer Norinco.

The company confiscated 7,800 acres (3,156 hectares) of land from farmers in 2010 for the project. Last year, local farmers began a protest against the land-grab and the environmental damage caused by the mine.

The protests were later supported by national human rights and environmental groups and gained popular support across the country, as the project is being viewed as benefiting only Burma’s notorious military and Chinese investors.

President Thein Sein’s spokesman Ye Htut said any investment project causes environmental and social impacts, adding that the commission’s report advises that such impacts are minimized and weighed against the benefits.

“Most agree that this [inquiry report] is an acceptable result,” he said. “If people don’t accept the result, there are rules and regulations for them to protest peacefully… But when they come by force we have take some necessary measures.”