Letpadaung Protests to Test the Limits of Reforms

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 4 December 2012

Burma’s “reformist” government is under fire for its brutal crackdown on peaceful protests against the copper mining project in Monywa, Sagaing Division. The police action, which left many monks seriously injured, has enraged the Burmese public. Far from crushing resistance to the project, it has set the stage for even more intense opposition.

But even before the crackdown last week, many Burmese were deeply opposed to the mining project, not simply because of the damage it has already caused and the further harm it could do if allowed to continue, but because of the two parties that stand to profit most from this massive undertaking.

The copper mining project in Letpadaung, near Monywa, is a joint-venture between the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEH) and China’s Wanbao Company. More than 7,800 acres of land have been grabbed from 26 villages in the Letpadaung mountain range to make way for the project.

The UMEH has been involved in many lucrative business deals over the past two decades since it was formed under the ex-military regime, many of them involving Chinese partners who received generous  concessions thanks to Beijing’s friendly relations with the junta that ruled until last year. In most cases, little is known about the details of these deals, as both sides have seen little need for transparency.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

What has been apparent, however, is the social and environmental impact of these partnerships. Thousands of people have been displaced without compensation, and the land they lived on has been subject to immense degradation.

It’s no wonder, then, that simmering resentment has been coming to a head over projects like the Letpadaung mine and the even larger Myitsone hydro-dam that was suspended last year due to popular opposition. The copper-mine protests started three months months ago, when local people began demanding that the mine be closed, and has since become a national cause célèbre among activists and the general public.

Unfortunately, President Thein Sein has not been as swift in his response to this growing crisis as he was last year, when he ordered the suspension of the US $3.6 billion Myitsone dam project in Kachin State. That decision, which stunned the China Power Investment Corporation, the main player in the deal, came in response to anger over the fact that most of the generated energy would be sent directly to China, while Burma’s domestic electricity needs remained unmet.

It was a brave move on Thein Sein’s part, but one that he seems unlikely to repeat this time around. Instead, the authorities have attempted to appease their critics by apologizing for the crackdown, and the president has formed another commission of inquiry (the second since June, when he appointed a number of prominent activists to investigate the causes of the communal violence in Arakan State). This time, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will lead the investigation, which will probe the recent crackdown and asses whether or not the Letpadaung project should continue.

It was a step in the right direction, but it failed to placate protesters, who organized further demonstrations in Rangoon and Mandalay. Above all, what the Burmese people want is accountability, not only for incidents such as last week’s crackdown, but also for the dirty deals behind these projects.

For its part, China has made it clear that it doesn’t want to see a repeat of the Myitsone fiasco. An editorial by the Chinese government’s mouthpiece tabloid, The Global Times, said it would be a “lose-lose situation for China and Myanmar if the [Letpadaung] project is halted.”

“Only third parties, including some Western forces, will be glad to see this result,” the editorial continued, adding that the protests were actually instigated by Western-backed NGOs. It goes on to say that if the project is eventually stopped, “Chinese companies should receive compensation according to the contract and international practice.”

These are just the words of one editorial, but there’s every reason to believe that Thein Sein has been receiving the same message directly from Beijing. By appointing Suu Kyi as head of the investigation commission, he may have bought some time, but pressure from both sides—Beijing and the Burmese public—will continue to mount in the coming days and weeks.

Unless he handles this issue properly, Thein Sein—who was recently ranked No. 1, together with Suu Kyi, among the 100 Global Thinkers of 2012 by the US-based Foreign Policy magazine for his reform efforts—could crash and burn before he completes the second year of his five-year tenure as president.

Already, Thein Sein’s popularity among ordinary Burmese is on the decline because of his apparent refusal to make a bolder move to dismantle a vestige of the old order. Unless he acts soon to convince the Burmese public that prying Burma away from the destructive practices of the past is part of his agenda, his days as a hero of reform could prove short-lived.