Letpadaung Outrage Grows in Northwest Burma and Rangoon

By Nyein Nyein 29 April 2013

Hundreds of people took to the streets to protest against a controversial copper mine project in northwest Burma on Monday, following demonstrations against the project last week and exactly five months after a crackdown on protesters near the mine left dozens injured in November.

Calling for an immediate end to the Letpadaung mine project, which has displaced farming families in 26 villages from their land, about 500 people marched on Monday from Tone village in Sagaing Division to the head office of the mining project, a joint venture between a military-controlled conglomerate and a Chinese mining company.

Win Tin, a farmer from Hse Te village, said the protesters received permission from local authorities to march but added, “The authorities allowed only 500 people to gather, even though we requested a gathering of 800 people.

The peaceful march is the latest sign of public outrage against the mining project. Last Thursday, three people were arrested and others were injured after the police moved to forcefully stop a group of farmers from plowing fields that had been taken for the project.

On Friday, hundreds of people marched from Tone village to the police station in Salingyi Township, calling for the release of those detained during Thursday’s demonstration. Protesters returned home after the police blocked their path and threatened to shoot anyone who continued beyond a certain point.

Local police plan to file charges against eight activists who they say provoked the demonstrations and allegedly engaged in other illegal activities.

In a public announcement released over the weekend, the Sagaing Division Police said they would charge six members of the Rangoon People’s Support Network—including Aung Soe, Ba Htoo, Thar Gyi, Ko Latt, Thaw Zin and Ko Thu — as well as activists Han Win Aung from the Political Prisoners Families’ Beneficial Network and Thaung Htike Oo of the Rangoon Institute of Technology’s student union.

The police warned local residents in the announcement that harboring these suspects or failing to provide information on their whereabouts would constitute a criminal offense.

“Photos of them have been posted on every corner in the village,” Win Tin said of the eight activists, adding that he feared for their safety as security in villages around the mine had been tightened.

The Asian Human Rights Commission criticized the police announcement, saying it was “clearly intended as a direct threat to the local population.”

“The announcement by the Sagaing [Division] police is just the latest illustration of how far authorities are prepared to stray from the supposedly democratic path that they claim to be treading, in order to protect the interests of crony businesses and ensure continued impunity for the police in their handling of the Letpadaung mine affair,” the rights group said in a statement on Monday.

Meanwhile, dozens people gathered in downtown Rangoon on Monday to lend their support to the Letpadaung protesters.

With permission from local authorities, the supporters called for the prosecution of those responsible for the brutal pre-dawn crackdown on peaceful protesters near the mine on Nov. 29.

Wai Lu, an activist from the Rangoon People’s Support Network who helped organize the gathering in Rangoon on Monday, also called for the release of those detained in demonstrations last week.

“We’re urging authorities to immediately release information on the whereabouts of three people, including two villagers and an activist from our network, who are in custody and to release those detainees from the latest crackdown,” he told The Irrawaddy.

He also called for the mining project to be postponed until local grievances are addressed and for the police to drop their arrest warrant for the eight activists.

Ant Maung, a local activist who has long opposed the mining project, said the police’s quick and forceful response to quell protests near the Letpadaung mine seemed at odds with the tendency of local security officers to stand back and watch during anti-Muslim riots in central Burma last month.

“Anyone in Burma has a right to support or object to the copper mine project,” said the activist from the Save Letpadaung Mountain Committee. “As long as they express their concern in accordance with democratic principles, the authorities should not take action against them. That would be an ugly picture.”

More than 7,000 acres of farmland were confiscated in 2010 for the Letpadaung copper mine project, a joint venture between the Chinese Wanbao company and Burma’s military-owned Union of Myanmar Economics Holdings.

Protests against the project began last year, with activists citing environmental concerns such as the piling of mining waste on village farmland.

A police crackdown on peaceful protesters in late November left more than 100 people injured, mostly Buddhist monks.

A government team led by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was formed after the crackdown to investigate the mine and determine whether the project should continue. The team last month recommended that the project continue and farmers be compensated for their lost land.

While hundreds of farmers have received compensation, many others are refusing to take the money and continuing with demonstrations.