Eight Detained as Opposition to Burma’s Letpadaung Copper Mine Continues

By Zarni Mann 5 February 2014

Eight people were detained temporarily Wednesday while protesting against the controversial Letpadaung copper mining project in central Burma’s Sagaing Division, according to locals.

Some 7,800 acres of land in Sarlingyi Township has been confiscated for the project, which has been dogged by protests over poor compensation and environmental safeguards.

Work only restarted late last year after the government suspended work in November 2012 amid widespread opposition. The government has renegotiated the terms of the project and tried to address locals’ complaints about the joint venture between the Burmese military owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL) and Chinese firm Wanbao.

But demonstrations have continued this week, with locals saying that a fence being built near the copper mine is encroaching on land that had so far not been seized for use by the project, and for which no compensation has been paid.

According to family members, well known protester Thwae Thwae Win, from Wat Hmae village, and seven other people were detained Wednesday morning when they laid in front of bulldozers to prevent them from working on the fence.

“They were dragged away by policewomen, and currently are detained in police vehicles that are parked by the fencing area,” Zaw Win, a resident of Wat Hmae village, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday afternoon.

Thwae Thwae Win said she was released at 6:30 pm Wednesday without charge. The police held the three men and five women all day to break the protest up, she said, adding that she would not stop demonstrating against the project.

People from more than 26 villages surrounding the massive mine are still protesting against the project, and new concerns continue to arise about its environmental impact.

Kan Gone village is just a few kilometers from a factory used to purify copper for the mining project. Locals and environmentalists say that since the factory was built in 2007, sulphuric acid coming from the plant has affected crops, soil, water and the air, and even led to high death rates in the village.

Since mid-January, a strong smell has permeated the area, said Aung Soe, a resident of Kan Gone village.

“Most of our crops are being destroyed. The air smells like rotten egg or burning feathers, especially during night time. Children and elders can’t sleep well because of those terrible smells,” Aung Soe said.

Locals say the factory is still working, despite a parliamentary committee—led by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi—recommending that the factory stop operating until environmental concerns were addressed.

Locals have complained to local authorities, including Col Kyi Naing, the Sagaing minister for borders and security, but say they have received no firm guarantees.

“Col Kyi Naing just said he and the responsible authorities will send our complaints to their superiors to handle this problem. We don’t know how long it will take. We just don’t want the responsible people to take too much time on this matter which is threatening many lives,” said Aung Soe.

In November 2013, a soil test was conducted by Rangoon-based NGO Advancing Life and Regenerating Motherland (ALARM). According to the group’s environmentalists, the amount of sulphate dissolved in soil samples was five times the acceptable level.

Win Myo Thu, an environmentalist with ALARM, said the air pollution was worsening due to the changing of temperature in the region and needs urgent attention from those responsible.

“If this problem is being neglected, the health problems such as respiratory problems, trachoma, eyes and skin disease will increase as pollution will worsened as the summer is drawing in with high temperatures and less humidity,” he said.

State-owned newspaper the New Light of Myanmar reported Wednesday that a meeting of experts and government officials in Naypyidaw is still reviewing the report of an investigation commission concerning the environmental impacts of the Latpadaung copper mine.

According to the newspaper, which did not give details about the report’s contents, the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) report on the project is almost finalized.