RANGOON — Three people were injured on Tuesday morning when police used rubber bullets to quell an attempt to halt land seizures near the Letpadaung copper mining project, the day after one woman was shot dead by police in the same village.
A doctor from the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, who is giving medical assistance at Hse Tae village and who spoke to The Irrawaddy on condition of anonymity, said he had treated 16 people who were injured in confrontations over the last two days, including several shot with rubber bullets, while others were hit and kicked by police and Chinese employees working on the project.
“Most of them are women,” he said.
According to Hse Tae residents, more than 17 acres of farmland in the surrounding area had been bulldozed since 6:30am on Tuesday, destroying a swath of sesame, sunflower and bean crops.
“Right after the bulldozer passed, the Chinese workers planted posts to demarcate the land for fencing,” said Phyu Hnin Htwe, a Hse Tae resident who witnessed the seizure. “When the villagers attempted to stop the bulldozer, police shot them down.”
An official from Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper Limited, the Chinese company constructing the Letpadaung mine in a joint venture with the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, told the Irrawaddy on Tuesday that the company will continue to fence the area.
“We will keep fencing today,” said Dong Yunfei, Wanbao’s administrative manager. “We are just doing our business on the land we leased, and there are some people who are not pleased with what we are doing because of instigation by some political forces.”
Dong added that the project had the approval of the majority of local villagers, and the land had been appropriated by the government in 2001 and leased to the company in 2011.
A report in state-run media on Tuesday, headlined ‘Extension of Letpadaung Copper Mine Fence Disturbed’, said that villagers attacked security forces and detained 10 workers. The article stated that 11 police and nine villagers were injured in the confrontation, in addition to the death of 56-year-old villager Khin Win.
In a press statement on Monday, Wanbao said it would extend its working area under the direction of the Burmese government in order to comply with the requirements of its investment permit granted by the Myanmar Investment Commission.
In a subsequent press release, issued on Monday after Khin Win’s death was made public, Wanbao described the death as “senseless” and expressed hope for a full police investigation, while touting the copper mine’s broad public support in the affected communities.
“91 percent of impacted villagers in 27 villages who were consulted through door to door consultations have also supported us,” the statement read. “So we have achieved great strides in our community relationships. There is a great story of hope and reconciliation […] This is what makes this senseless death even more painful and poignant. The mining project is there to help people like the lady who has passed away.”
On Tuesday the company accused protestors of using slingshots and throwing rocks at police and Wanbao staff, while vehemently denying accounts on social media that its employees had assaulted villagers and carried knives.
“These stories are hurtful and totally untrue,” read a statement on the Wanbao website. “If anything it has been Wanbao staff and contractors who have been at the receiving end of intimidation and beatings by activists and extremists as they carry out their work.”
The Letpadaung copper mining project has gained international notoriety since a Nov. 2012 incident in which police fired at demonstrators using incendiary rounds, believed to be white phosphorous, during a brutal crackdown at a protest camp.
In the last two years, there have been numerous confrontations between villagers and security forces as the mine’s operators attempted to extend the project’s operating area. Protests continue over the project due to loss of farmland, ecological impact and the destruction of sacred religious structures.
Four villages are being completely cleared for the mine and land around 26 other farming villagers, inhabited by more than 25,000 people, are also being acquired by the project.
Many villagers are reluctant to take compensation after growing up in families that have tilled the surrounding farmlands for generations.
“We are just farmers,” said 38-year-old Hse Tae villager Yee Win, whose 14 acres of land were confiscated last year. “All we know is how to do farming. I just want my land back, as I am not sure the compensation they pay will guarantee our livelihoods.”
Win Mar, whose seven acres of crops outside Hse Tae were flattened by a bulldozer on Tuesday morning, has also refused compensation.
“We tried to prevent them but it was in vain,” she said. “We were outnumbered. There were police vans and fire engines behind them.”
“I’m very sad. They robbed me of my land. I don’t know what to do next,” she added.