Protesters Defy Orders End to Mine Rally

By Yadana Htun 28 November 2012

MONYWA—Hundreds of Buddhist monks and villagers occupying a copper mine in northwestern Burma defied a government order to leave by Wednesday, saying they will stay until the project is halted.

The protesters, who have set up six camps at the site, say the Letpadaung mine near the town of Monywa is causing environmental, social and health problems. The protest is the latest example of increased activism by citizens since an elected government took over last year following almost five decades of repressive military rule.

State television broadcast an announcement Tuesday night that ordered protesters to cease their occupation of the mine by midnight or face legal action. The mine is a joint venture between a Chinese firm and a company controlled by Burma’s military.

“We strongly condemn last night’s order from the Home Ministry,” said Thwe Thwe Win, one of the protest leaders. “We will not stop our protest until our demands are met.”

Asked if they were concerned about being arrested, he said: “We will face difficulties, but we will continue our protest.”

Protesters say they want the mining project “to be totally halted” and have asked that any concessions be made publicly in front of the media.

There was no immediate reaction from authorities.

Political and economic liberalization under President Thein Sein has won praise from Western governments, which have eased sanctions imposed on the previous military government because of its poor record on human and civil rights.

However, this protest, which began in August, poses a direct challenge to the army because of its financial interest in the mine.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is to visit the area on Thursday to hear the protesters’ grievances, adding to the pressure on Thein Sein’s army-backed government. Her visit is also bound to draw attention to the rally, which partly due to its remote location has been largely ignored.

The announcement ordering an end to the occupation said operations at the copper mine had been halted since Nov. 18, after protesters occupied the area.

After the announcement was issued, some villagers left the mining site, according to Win Kyawt Hmu, a protester contacted by phone.

He said there had been nearly 1,000 protesters at the six occupation camps, including at least 300 Buddhist monks. Buddhist monks in Burma have traditionally been closely involved in social protests. It wasn’t immediately possible to confirm those figures.

He said the monks and about 50 villagers remained at the main camp, near the offices of the Chinese partner in the mine, Wan Bao Co. Ltd.

The order to end the protest said parliament had decided to form a committee to investigate the situation at the mine, but could not start its work until it resumes operation.