Letpadaung: Fields of Fire

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 26 February 2015

When a bulldozer rolled onto her ancestral farmland stretching under the shadow of Letpadaung mountain on a December morning last year, Ma Win Mar was among dozens of farmers who tried to stop it.

But as rubber bullets, fired from cordons of police standing behind the roaring yellow machine, whistled past their ears, all the villagers could do was retreat.

As she helplessly watched the broad steel blade of the machine uproot a swath of sesame, sunflower and bean crops on her seven-acre land, the 30-year-old woman broke down in tears.

“Why did they do it to me? All we have is our land,” Ma Win Mar said of the day she lost her farmland to one of the biggest Chinese investment projects in the country—the Letpadaung copper mining project.

The project is a joint venture between China’s Wanbao mining company—a subsidiary of Norinco, a weapons manufacturer—and the Myanmar military-owned conglomerate Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL).

One day before Ma Win Mar lost her land, on Dec. 22, a woman in her 50s was shot dead by police during a clash with villagers at the project site while company employees tried to fence off farmland unlawfully claimed by the company.

It was the latest flashpoint between security forces and local villagers who refused to take compensation from the company for the expansion of the project, from which 100,000 tons of copper is slated to be extracted annually starting from 2015.

The death of Daw Khin Win, who was shot in the head, came just over two years since another violent government crackdown on Letpadaung protestors in November 2012. During the early morning raid, police used smoke bombs containing white phosphorus to disperse protestors, injuring more than 100 people, the majority of them Buddhist monks.

Conditional Approval

Situated on the western bank of the Chindwin River in Sagaing Region, the Letpadaung copper mine near Monywa in upper Myanmar has been a source of public outcry since 2012.

Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd signed a joint venture with UMEHL in mid-2010 and a 60-year land grant for the project was acquired from the Ministry of Home Affairs in August 2012. Since then, just over 7,867 acres of land in the Letpadaung region have been confiscated to make way for the US$997 million expansion of the copper mine.

Following the November 2012 crackdown, the government formed an investigation commission led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to determine whether the project should go ahead.

In its report, issued in March 2013, the commission suggested the project should proceed, but only after outstanding concerns affecting “the interests of the country, local people and younger generations” were addressed.

It provided 42 recommendations that included urging stakeholders to devise a new contract that was more beneficial for the country, pay land compensation to local people at the market price and carry out a more comprehensive Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA).

Myanmar Wanbao Mining Ltd welcomed the decision of the report and pledged to heed its call to listen to the needs of the local community. The company, the government and the UMEHL signed a new contract in July 2013 that provided for the government to keep 51 percent of profits from the venture.

Immediately following the report’s release, President U Thein Sein formed a 15-member committee, supervised by a President’s Office minister and including directors from UMEHL and Wanbao as members, to implement the findings of the inquiry commission.

However, none of these official moves managed to quell local opposition to the project arising from loss of farmland, inadequate compensation, the project’s environmental impact and the destruction of sacred religious structures.

Over the past two years, confrontations between villagers and security forces have continued as the mine’s operators attempted to extend the project’s operating area. Four villages have been forced to relocate for the mine so far and land around 32 other farming villages, inhabited by more than 25,000 people, is also being acquired.

Many villagers are reluctant to take compensation after growing up in families that have tilled the surrounding farmlands for generations. For them, their land is their livelihood and the only inheritance they can hand down to the next generation in their family.

“We are just farmers,” said 38-year-old Hse Tae villager Daw Yee Win, whose 14 acres of land were confiscated last year. “All we know is how to farm. I just want my land back as I am not sure the compensation they pay will guarantee our livelihood. We firmly believe that as long as we can work on our land, we will not go hungry.”

The Blame Game

In the wake of the fatal shooting last December, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said the committee formed by the government to implement her report’s recommendations had failed to act.

“The committee did carry out some recommendations, but it has not fully implemented [them]… It has not followed the recommendations to the letter,” she told the media in December.

In response, U Tin Myint, the secretary of the implementation committee, claimed that 29 out of 42 recommendations had been carried out and an amended ESIA draft was underway, the state-run paper The Mirror reported on Jan. 9.

U Tin Myint said that since 2011, farmland surrounding the mine project area was seized in accordance with land acquisition by laws and that the committee had paid more than 11 billion kyat in total for land compensation, at market prices, as suggested by the report.

He added that, although some locals refused to accept compensation for their land, the land could still be confiscated under section 16 of the Land Acquisition Law that, according to the secretary, “permits a district administrator to seize land for a state project without any interference.”

U Tin Myint blamed “outside organizations and networks” for conspiring to destroy the project, a sentiment that faintly echoed a statement issued by Wanbao on Dec. 30 in which the Chinese company referred to political organizations and activists that were seeking to “make political gains.”

The company defended its record in implementing the inquiry commission’s recommendations and claimed it had the “overwhelming support” of local communities. However, it also asserted that issues of land use and resettlement were the responsibility of the government and the UMEHL.

Daw Khin San Hlaing, a Lower House parliamentarian from Sagaing Region and a member of the investigation commission, said local people had lost faith in the implementation committee as it had failed to carry out most of the recommendations.

“The most evident failure is that the project still doesn’t have an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment. Without the assessment, the company is now trying to expand the project by fencing farmland without owners’ approval,” she said.

“As a committee endorsed by the president, they should be honest as to why they have failed to implement the recommendations [and indicate] what else is left to be done rather than scapegoating other people.”

The lawmaker said if the committee failed to implement the recommendations of the report, the government should abolish it and form a new one.

She also warned Wanbao that if it couldn’t follow the recommendations, it should shut down the project, as the mounting issues facing the copper mine could deter potential foreign investment in Myanmar.

Ma Thwe Thwe Win, a Hse Tae villager, said that local people accept the recommendations of the report but feel betrayed that the committee has failed to implement them.

She said that many locals had lost faith in the project given the problems they have faced over the last two years.

“Apart from the promise that [project developers] would strictly follow the recommendations [of the report], local people should have a voice in whether the project should go ahead,” she said.

For Ma Win Khaing, the daughter of Daw Khin Win, who was shot dead by police in the Dec. 22 clash, only the complete cancellation of the project would do.

“If the project still exists, we’re afraid there will be more cases like my mother’s,” she said. 

Additional reporting contributed by Zarni Mann in Mandalay.