CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Seven people were temporarily detained by the authorities in Letpadaung on Monday for demanding Chinese mining company Wanbao take responsibility for the inundation of their villages during recent flooding.
Thousands of villagers, with livestock herds in tow, left their homes and took temporary shelter on the Monywa-Salingyi Road in Sagaing Division after their homes were swamped by the floodwaters that have killed at least 46 and displaced more than 200,000 people since mid-July.
Salingyi Township residents have claimed that the construction of large dirt embankments around the perimeter of the controversial Letpadaung copper mining project exacerbated floods in the area, leading to the destruction of their homes and crops.
Anti-mine activists said that they approached a vehicle carrying Wanbao managers on Monday afternoon and told them that the company needed to take responsibility for flooding in the area, dismantle some of the embankments to lower the water level and compensate villagers for destroyed crops.
“When we stopped them, and raised our demands, they told us to come to their office—but instead we were taken to the Salingyi police station on the orders of Police Maj. Aung Kyaw,” said Mar Cho, one of the seven detained villagers.
All seven were released that evening, after area villagers gathered outside the township police station.
Wanbao claimed on Monday that the detained villagers had provoked a confrontation, preventing plans to distribute relief aid to flood-affected communities around Letpadaung.
“At 2:30 pm this afternoon when Wanbao employees carried packed rice and drinking water to villagers who were anxious for aid, they were stopped by a handful of extremists…to protest our Letpadaung copper project with political motivations,” the company said in a statement on its website.
“Because of the blockade, we had to withdraw and leave all of the food we cooked and also the drinking water in the nearby Sede-Zeedaw New Village.”
Villagers denied that they had tried to block the distribution of aid, insisting that they were only seeking to discuss the embankments and have the Wanbao employees admit the mine’s culpability in the destruction of homes and crops.
The Letpadaung project is a joint venture between the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL) and Wanbao, itself a subsidiary of Chinese weapons manufacturer Norinco.
The project has been heavily criticized by locals and international observers over human rights concerns.
Nearly 8,000 acres of land has been confiscated since 2012 as part of a US$1 billion expansion of the mining area. Local police infamously used white phosphorous to disperse anti-mine protesters in November 2012, and 56-year-old villager Khin Win was killed during a confrontation with police in December last year.
Many of the locals said that their crops, washed away by last week’s flood waters, were grown on leased lands after their own holdings were confiscated for the mining project in 2010.
Wanbao representatives, local philanthropy groups and unaffected villages nearby have been delivering relief supplies to flooded communities around the mine. According to the Wanbao Myanmar website, the company had spent 50 million kyats ($42,000) on foodstuffs and was organizing efforts to cook for and feed displaced residents.
Elsewhere, U Nanna Sara, a monk from Sede village in Salingyi Township said that locals and monks were distributing rice and curry packs to those who had gathered around the Monywa–Salingyi road.
Sagaing Division has suffered heavily from flooding in recent weeks, with the office of President Thein Sein declaring the region a disaster zone over the weekend. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated on Monday that at least 70,000 people had been affected by the floods in the division.