Burma’s Copper Mine Saga Opens Old Wound

By Aung Zaw 3 December 2012

The violent crackdown against demonstrators at the copper mine in Letpadaung, near Monywa in Sagaing Division, could lead to a political showdown if the government doesn’t handle the matter in a careful and timely manner.

Last Thursday’s pre-dawn raid on copper mine protesters injured dozens of monks and dealt a major blow to the credibility of the government of President Thein Sein. Burmese people who previously supported the government for its reform efforts have suddenly turned against it, outraged by images of monks with severe burns that have circulated widely on social media sites. The detention of well-known former monk Gambira (aka Nyi Nyi Lwin) and other activists over the weekend will only intensify people’s anger.

There is no doubt that the government and police mishandled the peaceful gathering. The authorities have responded to calls for an apology and the launch of an independent investigation, but the public is far from satisfied by this attempt at damage control. At a ceremony in Monywa, about five km from the site of the protest, Sagaing Division Police Chief San Yu provoked a loud chorus of boos when he told 10 senior monks that last week’s assault on members of the Buddhist clergy was an “accident” that he blamed on protesters who, he said, used the monks as human shields.

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

If the police really want to help calm things down, they need to do more than offer half-hearted apologies that are actually just a pathetic attempt to deflect responsibility. Sending a few high-ranking officials to meet monks who are now being treated for their injuries in hospital would go some way to placate the public, as would a clear and unequivocal apology from a senior government figure.

The people of Burma also have a right to know who ordered the crackdown in the first place. Some have noted that it came just a few days after Aung Min, a minister in the President’s Office and the government’s chief negotiator in talks with ethnic armed groups, visited the protest site. Does this mean that the order came directly from the president? If so, it hardly matters that the police botched the job, as some have said by way of excusing the government for what happened last week.

There are also some who believe that the crackdown was the work of hardliners opposed to reforms. Those who subscribe to this view suggest that Thein Sein could meet the fate of General Saw Maung, who served as the first head of the State Law and Order Restoration Council that seized power in a bloody coup in 1988. Saw Maung was seen by some as an honest, professional soldier who genuinely intended to hand over power to the winner of the 1990 general elections. In 1992, however, he was forced to resign because of his deteriorating mental health and placed under semi-house arrest.

Some political observers have also pointed out that the attack on the Letpadaung protesters came just hours before the arrival of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. If this was an attempt to undermine her, however, it appears to have backfired. Photos of her visiting hospitalized monks and hugging injured protesters a day after the crackdown have helped to bolster her image. And to the astonishment of many, she has been appointed to lead a government-appointed commission to investigate the incident.

Other prominent public figures, such as Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi of the 88 Generation Students group, have declined offers to serve on the commission, but have said that they will cooperate with its efforts. Many in Burma’s dissident circles have applauded this decision, saying that the government only wants to use the two former political prisoners to help it recover from the damage done to the Thein Sein administration’s reputation. (The president earlier formed another commission to look into the causes of sectarian violence in Arakan State. Ko Ko Gyi is a member of that commission.)

A day after the police moved to break up the demonstrators at Letpadaung, the President’s Office issued a statement saying that only tear gas was used, and that the clampdown was carried out in a “democratic” manner and in accordance with international standards. But the public refused to accept the government’s version of events, forcing the President’s Office to withdraw the statement a few hours later.

In any case, the crackdown has strengthened, not weakened, opposition to the copper mine at the center of this dispute. It has also increased scrutiny of the two main parties involved in the project—the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEH) and China’s Wanbao Company.

Although controversy has swirled around the mine ever since it was first opened in 1996 in partnership with Canada’s Ivanhoe (which divested its shares about a decade later), the current confrontation dates back only to August of this year, when more than 300 residents from 12 villages in the Letpadaung mountain range started staging protests to demand its closure, citing environmental destruction, forced relocations and illegal land confiscation.

According to journalist Bertil Lintner, the main player in the operation is Wanbao, which took over Ivanhoe’s role in the joint venture. “UMEH’s involvement is merely as a recipient of fees from Wanbao, a subsidiary of the North Industries Corporation, or Norinco, China’s main weapons manufacturer which is also involved in other business activities,” says Lintner.

Through businessmen in Burma and China, the former Burmese junta allegedly purchased arms from the Norinco.

UMEH is a military-owned conglomerate started in 1990, two years after pro-democracy protests were crushed and Burma’s armed forces assumed total control of the state. As a military business venture, UMEH enjoys special privilege and doesn’t have to pay taxes. One of its objectives is to support the welfare of soldiers and military families.

Not surprisingly, the UMEH is headed by senior military leaders. Under the former junta, Lt-Gen Myo Nyunt, Lt-Gen Win Myint and Gen Tin Aye were chairmen, while Lt-Gen Khin Zaw Oo is currently at the helm. All are among Burma’s wealthiest generals, and all are loyal to former strongman Snr-Gen Than Shwe.

The military business venture has its finger in every pie. It is involved in jade and gem production, garment factories, food and beverage, wood-based industries, the steel industry, tourism, transportation, computers, telecommunications, real estate, cement production, automobiles, banking, mining and cosmetics and stationery.

The company also has several sub-contractors and firms working in various commercial fields. They have controlled jade mine, air travel services, taxi service, construction, hotel and resort businesses.
According Burmese academic Maung Aung Myoe, UMEH and its subsidiary and affiliated firms engage extensively in trading activities. In the complete absence of transparency and accountability, UMEH has acquired state-owned companies and largely monopolized trade with domestic and foreign partners, including Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, China, South Korea and India.

This is definitely a touchy issue in Burma, as several senior leaders including Than Shwe, his former deputy Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye and many other powerful generals have allegedly siphoned state money and benefited from military-run projects, many of which are tied to China’s powerful businessmen, companies and government leaders.

In the future, many activists will no doubt begin to raise the issue of the gas pipeline project and other hydropower projects in Burma. China is one of the main investors in all of these projects.

Aung Min, who exchanged some harsh words with protesters at Letpadaung a few days before the crackdown on Thursday, raised the specter of China when he spoke of the costs of shutting down big projects like the copper mine and the Myitsone hydropower dam in Kachin State, which was ordered suspended last year.

“If China asks for compensation, even the Myitsone Dam shutdown would cost US $3 billion,” he said. “But China still hasn’t said a word about it. We are afraid of China.”

Aung Min added that Burma should be grateful to China for its aid in 1988, when the Southeast Asian nation faced a food crisis due to nationwide unrest. He added that in the 1980s, the former Chinese President Deng Xiaoping decided to cut off support to the Communist Party of Burma, weakening the Marxist insurgency against the central government.

“So we don’t dare to have a row with China!” said Aung Min. “If they feel annoyed with the shutdown of their projects and resume their support to the communists, the economy in border areas would backslide. So you’d better think seriously.”

Many have criticized Aung Min for his undiplomatic suggestion that Burma’s giant neighbor might actually try destabilize the country if it doesn’t get its way, but others have said that he was merely letting the public know the reality that Burma faces.

For now, however, the focus should more properly be on the UMEH, which created these problems in its pursuit of profits for Burma’s generals. As the country opens up, the UMEH will also need to be pried open, something that will undoubtedly meet with fierce resistance. In the long run, however, it is the only way for the government to avoid confrontations with both the Burmese public and its foreign business partners.