Copper Mine Protesters Defiant despite Threats

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 28 November 2012

RANGOON—Anti-copper mine demonstrators near Monywa, Sagaing Division, have refused to leave their protest camps until the controversial Chinese-backed project is shut down permanently despite government threats of legal action.

The authorities announced on Tuesday evening that those who have been inhabiting six camps in the vicinity of the Letpadaung mountain range copper mine since Nov. 17 must abandon the site by midnight or face legal action.

The order came a few days after a decision by Parliament to form a committee to investigate the situation.

More than 1,000 protesters from 26 surrounding villages including Buddhist monks and students have gathered by the project area, according to an anti-copper mine activist at a camp opened at Leldi Sayadaw Pagoda, built in remembrance of one of Burma’s most venerable monks.

“Since last night, the government has deployed two police trucks. There are around 100 police with riot gear but no action from them so far,” said Thaw Zin, an activist at the camp, speaking to The Irrawaddy by phone on Wednesday morning.

“There are 50 demonstrators at our camp, most of them women,” he added.

Win Win Htay, a native of nearby Sae Dae Village, has been at the camp for nine days. She learned of the government’s threat of legal action late on Tuesday but still wants the cancelation of the project.

“Why should we be scared? We are here to face anything that could happen. We demand the shutdown of the project,” said the 29-year-old. “If we give up, we will lose the land that is our lifeline, and the next generation will suffer the consequences of the environmental impact.”

Another protester at the camp, Myint Htwe, 49, said he felt very sad upon hearing the government’s ultimatum. “It’s like our parents forcing us to leave home without any reason,” said the farmer, adding that the authorities should being negotiating with villagers.

Myint Htwe used to hope that the government would sympathize with the people and be concerned about the ecological devastation the project is bringing. “But now they are not with us,” he said. “Their actions are like forcing us to hand our land to foreigners. So we are prepared for the worst.”

The project, a joint-venture between the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd and China’s Wan Bao Company, has come under fire since August after more than 300 residents from 12 villages in the Letpadaung mountain range staged protests to demand its closure, citing environmental destruction, forced relocations and illegal land confiscation.

More than 7,800 acres of land from 26 villages under the shadow of the mountain range have been seized to make way for the project that began last year. Since mid-November, protesters have been disrupting workers by linking arms to block the path of trucks at the construction site, and erecting camps nearby.

Meanwhile in Rangoon, a protest against the copper mine project took place on Monday, with some demonstrators reportedly arrested by police.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is scheduled to visit the area on Thursday to learn more about the issues involved. “We have a lot of expectation of her,” added Thaw Zin. “For us, she’s a leader of the people. We really welcome her as we hope she can do something for us.”

The Asian Human Rights Commission released a statement on Wednesday calling for an end to threats against the protesters.

“The farmers of Letpadaung and their allies are posing a challenge simply by virtue of the fact that their standpoint on democratization is that it is actually about democracy—the rights of citizens to stand up, have their voices heard, and resist unlawful and unjust attempts to take from them what they believe is rightfully theirs,” said the Hong Kong-based group. “For these reasons, they strongly deserve our support.”