RANGOON — Burma’s National Human Rights Commission has said that the recent killing of a farmer at the Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Division was the result of mistakes made by the police when they tried to suppress a protest against the project.
In a statement published in the Burmese state-owned media on Thursday, the commission said police had failed to follow security procedures for quelling a protest on Dec. 22, when officers were deployed to protect workers from China’s Wanbao Company as they seized and fenced off farmland for the expansion of the mine in Salingyi Township.
Dozens of angry farmers, who have vehemently opposed land seizures for the mining project in recent years, gathered to stop the confiscation of land on which their crops were growing. Tensions flared and clashes erupted between police and villagers. Officers opened fire on the protestors and a 56-year-old woman named Khin Win was hit in the head and killed. During the unrest, 10 police officers and 11 villagers were injured.
The commission organized an investigation into the death from Dec. 30 to Jan. 2. Its members visited villages in the area and met with Sagaing Division officials, police officers, medical staff and representatives of Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEHL), the military-owned joint venture partner of Wanbao.
The commission released a 33-point statement on Wednesday that quoted police as saying that they first fired warning shots because “villagers were holding sticks, swords, slingshots and sickles and shot at them with slingshots.”
The commission said police should subsequently not have fired directly into the crowd with live rounds, but should have first taken other steps to disperse the crowd, such as using water cannon. It said other anti-riot equipment that should have been used, such as tear gas, had not been provided for.
“To disperse the crowd by giving an order to shoot is the final step in dispersing the crowd. The commission found that shootings were carried out, skipping some steps,” the statement said. “Because of the poor management of the command, water cannon and tear gas bombs could not be used according to the security plan.”
The commission concluded that Khin Win’s killing “indicates that her right to life was harmed under Article 3 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” It recommended opening a legal case over the killing to test the “validity of the testimony of the witnesses of two sides … in line with the law.”
Thaung Htay, the younger brother of Khin Win, said in a reaction that the commission had been wrong to blame low-level police officers for the unrest, as the decision to crackdown on the protest was taken at a higher level of government.
“They… should not only blame the police. They will know who in the upper positions are involved in the case. If they only blame police the same cases will happen again,” he said, before adding that he thought that the companies involved with the project could also be partially responsible.
Repeated calls by The Irrawaddy to Salingyi Township and Monywa District police stations went unanswered on Thursday.
Family members of the victim filed a filed a first information report to the Salingyi Police Station on Jan. 3 in order to push authorities to open an investigation into killing. So far, it is unclear if police will do so.
The violence and death of the villager caused an outcry among Burmese rights activists and the wider public, which have longed opposed the huge copper mine as it is seen as benefiting only the Chinese investor and UMEHL.
Burma’s human rights commission was set up by President Thein Sein in 2011 and has been criticized for lacking parliamentary endorsement and independence from the President’s Office. It has limited powers to take legal actions in case of abuses and a report issued by local NGOs in September slammed the commission’s performance, saying it failed to successfully investigate a single case since its inception.
In a separate development, Salingyi Township authorities on Wednesday announced that they would offer farmers compensation for the loss of the crops that were growing on the land that was fenced off in December.
In a letter seen by The Irrawaddy, the township authorities offered a minimum of about US$310 per acre of destroyed corn, beans and other seasonal crops.
“The announced compensation amount is too low compared to the prices they should have got,” said Yee Yee Win, a farmer from the Hse Te village, which was affected by the recent land seizures. He said some farmers had been offered about $420 for an acre of pigeon peas, although they supposedly could have earned more than twice that amount if they had been allowed to harvest their crops.
Additional reporting from Chiang Mai, Thailand, by Nyein Nyein.