Expectations are high among the villagers near the controversial Letpadaung copper mine that the incoming National League for Democracy government will take their side in what could be a resumption of hostilities with the operator – and possibly police.
The residents of the villages around the mine project in Salingyi township, Sagaing Region, believe they have particular reason to expect the support of the next government.
In 2012, NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was appointed chair of a commission of inquiry set up to investigate a particularly violent clash in which police used white phosphorous on protesters, leaving scores injured, including Buddhist monks. Controversially, the commission recommended the project continue – on the proviso that a number of recommendations were implemented. The villagers say they now want the NLD to ensure the mining company follows the commission’s orders.
Local anger over the alleged land grabs and environmental degradation associated with the Letpadaung mine has repeatedly flared up. In December 2014, one local resident was shot dead by police during a protest. On February 8, police charged 65 residents with staging an illegal demonstration in connection with an attempt by the Chinese company Wanbao to fence off part of the project zone to build a factory and warehouses. The company has said it hopes to complete the work by May 4 before resuming copper production.
“All we wanted was permission to cultivate the land. Now we have no work,” said Daw Amar Cho, a resident of Tone village, who faces charges for leading the protest. She said she had not yet received any official notification of the police complaint.
Wanbao has offered three compensation payments to local residents. The first, of K520,000, was made in 2011-12 in respect of three years of crops. Further payments were then made of K1 million and K1.8 million.
Daw Amar Cho said she had accepted the first payment. “We all took it. But the second time, they said that in exchange for the money we would have to give up ownership of the land. I didn’t take that payment.”
Activist U Sai Kyaw Aye said that the total land area of the mine project was 7878 acres, and no compensation had been offered in respect of 3000 acres. “The villagers took the first payment out of fear. The villagers don’t want to sell their land. Wanbao is proceeding against the will of the people,” he said.
A local monk, U Zin Arrlawka, who also faces charges, told The Myanmar Times, “About 200 or 300 people have been charged in total so far.”
U Soe Hein, a member of Sein Yaung So Activities, a Mandalay-based environmental group, said he had contributed to research by the Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability, which said Wanbao had implemented only 20 percent of the recommendations of the investigation committee, and much of its activity was just for show. The current government insists that the overwhelming majority have been implemented.
“They offered us land 20 miles [32 kilometres] away, but it was no good for farming. They offered vocational training, then they gave us Chinese sewing machines that didn’t work.”
He said villagers demanded the full implementation of the recommendations agreed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s investigation committee.
The project is a joint venture between military-owned Myanmar Economic Holdings (MEHL) and Wanbao Mining (Wanbao), a Chinese company and a subsidiary of China’s state-owned arms firm, China North Industries Corporation, better known as Norinco.
The operator of the mine, Myanmar Wanbao, insists that the majority of residents have been compensated and support the project. In a recent interview, U Myint Thein, manager of Myanmar Wanbao’s Yangon office, said the company has adopted an environmental conservation plan drawn up by an Australian company, in accordance with international standards. Wanbao will also compensate farmers whose land has been taken, with money and job opportunities. Those who refuse to accept work will receive a monthly grant of US$70, $120 or $160 a month over a 30-year period. The company says 80pc of those affected have already accepted the offer.
On the recommendation of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the contract between MEHL and Wanbao was also negotiated to give the state a much larger share. It will now get 51pc of the profits, while Wanbao will get 30pc and MEHL 19pc.
But resident Ma Khin Nilar Mya said even villagers who had accepted compensation opposed the mine.
“Those villagers now say they made a mistake in accepting the compensation,” she said.
U Soe Hein said, “I don’t think the company can continue if it accepts all the recommendations of the investigation committee.”
Wanbao is also pinning its hopes on the new government, but for a far different outcome than residents.
Dong Yun Fei, a Myanmar spokesperson for Wanbao, told AFP that the company would start production under the new government “and I hope for a better future with them”.
He added that there are “still some problems with local people” and it was up to the NLD to quell opposition.
“Some of them protest sometimes,” he said. “The question of how to handle this problem is the business of the government. Only they can solve it.”
But the NLD, keen to avoid confrontation with the military, is likely to tread carefully. Already the project has been the source of tension in parliament, when it was raised during a discussion on February 26 over allegations the current government was trying to rush through deals before leaving office. Military MPs interrupted an NLD representative as he criticised the project, and stood to show their objection.
Nevertheless, Ma Thwet Thwet Win, of Wat Hmay village, said she expected the incoming NLD government to take action. “UMEHL, Wanbao and the local authorities are to blame for these protests,” she said, adding that even apparent concessions on the part of the company had not resolved the situation.
“Kan village has no water,” she said. “The authorities promised to provide it, the chief minister held a ceremony, but there’s still no water.”