The Letpadaung Saga and the End of an Era

By Aung Zaw 14 March 2013

When Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s iconic pro-democracy leader, told villagers affected by the controversial Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Division on Wednesday that their struggle against the project was “in vain,” a new era in Burmese politics began.

It is no small irony that this event occurred 25 years to the day after the death of Phone Maw, a student activist who is widely regarded as the first victim of the crackdown on a nascent pro-democracy movement that went on to reshape Burma’s political landscape for the next quarter of a century.

It was during the 1988 struggle to end what was then 26 years of military rule that Suu Kyi, daughter of independence hero Aung San, emerged as the leader of this movement. For her efforts to pressure the newly installed junta that seized power in a bloody coup in September 1988 to release its grip, she spent much of the next two decades in detention.

Those days, however, are over. Released from house arrest in late 2010, Suu Kyi has since achieved a modus vivendi with the current quasi-civilian government that was formed two years ago, ending 50 years of direct military rule but leaving the influence of the armed forces in Burmese politics largely intact.

When protests against the Letpadaung mine erupted last year, many of the affected villagers, who complained of being forced off their land and suffering the effects of environmental degradation, may have hoped that Suu Kyi would champion their cause. After all, the previous year, she had backed the protest movement against the Myitsone hydropower dam in Kachin State, which had become a national cause celebre.

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]

That project, remarkably, was suspended by President Thein Sein, in a move that sent a strong signal to critics of his government that he was serious about being more responsive to public demands. Suu Kyi—and the governments of the West—were suitably impressed.

Like the Myitsone dam, the Letpadaung mine is a Chinese-backed project. The chief investor is Wanbao, a subsidiary of China’s state-owned arms firm Norinco, and its joint-venture partner is the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL), a powerful military-owned conglomerate.

In 2010, when 7,800 acres (3,156 hectares) of farmland were confiscated to expand the mining operation, there was little protest because at the time, Burma was still firmly under the heel of the military. It was only last year, after the success of the anti-Myitsone dam protests, that local villagers were emboldened to voice their grievances, attracting support from much of the rest of the country.

That support quickly turned to outrage, however, when local authorities launched a pre-dawn raid on protesters on Nov. 29, injuring more than 100 people. Images of severely burned Buddhist monks— victims of incendiary devices used as part of the crackdown—appeared on protest posters in towns and cities around Burma.

It was at that point that Suu Kyi, who had previously stayed out of the dispute, entered the scene. When Thein Sein formed a commission to investigate the incident and assess whether the mining project should go ahead in the face of growing opposition, he appointed Suu Kyi to lead it.

In the ensuing months, the commission kept its cards close to its chest. The protests continued, but Wanbao expressed confidence that it would be allowed to go ahead with the project, while adding that it would respect whatever decision the commission reached.

On Tuesday, when the commission released its report, Wanbao was not disappointed. It agreed to follow the report’s recommendation to uphold environmental safeguards, create benefits for the community and compensate villagers for seizing their lands. UMEHL also released a statement making a similar pledge.

And so Suu Kyi, who just last week had a meeting with the Chinese ambassador in Naypyidaw, helped the government to avert a further deterioration of its relationship with China. “We have to get along with the neighboring country, whether we like it or not,” she reportedly said, according to the Guardian newspaper.

Some analysts say that appointing Suu Kyi to head the commission was a wise political decision on Thein Sein’s part, since it shifted the burden of balancing China’s concerns with popular demands onto her shoulders. For Suu Kyi’s part, taking on this role gave her a chance to assure Beijing that its legitimate interests in Burma would be protected if she comes to power after elections in 2015.

The decision did not go over well with the protesters, however. Thwe Thwe Win, one of the protest leaders, bluntly told Associated Press: “The commission should think about the welfare of their own people—poor local villagers—rather than good relations with China.”

Other activists, such as 88 Generation leaders Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, who turned down an invitation to join the Letpadaung commission, have so far remained silent on its final report. One wonders, however, if they, too, will come out and say something against the report and Suu Kyi.

Certainly the people of the Letpadaung area did not hesitate to express their unhappiness with the final decision reached by the report. On Thursday, Suu Kyi was confronted by hundreds of angry villagers as she attempted to make her way to a public meeting to explain the report’s recommendations.

“Nothing is more important than our people,” she told a crowd that had surrounded her motorcade. “I am responsible for the good of you. Even though the Letpadaung Mountain will be gone, we can still create a good and pleasant environment for you.”

From now on, however, she can no longer count on Burma’s people to believe her when she says that everything she does is in their best interests. Those days, too, are over.