The Pyithu Hluttaw has unanimously approved a motion to form an independent commission to investigate the Letpadaung copper project in Sagaing Region and whether a planned expansion should be allowed to proceed.
The mine has been the focus of months of protests, with residents angry at the confiscation of thousands of acres of farmland for the expansion, which has been halted because of the unrest.
The extraordinary motion, presented on Friday, November 23, the final day of the fifth session of parliament, was sponsored by National League for Democracy member Daw Khin San Hlaing, the representative for Pale in Sagaing Region.
While Minister for Defence Lieutenant General Wai Lwin defended the conduct of the project’s investors, including military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL), and told the hluttaw it was not necessary to form the committee, he was overruled.
The motion called for the formations of “an independent, national-level commission composed of individuals and organisations trusted by the public and local and foreign experts and organisations”, which would investigate the Letpadaung expansion, as well as existing mines at Sabetaung and Kyisintaung, and then issue public findings and recommendations.
The motion also called on the “Pyithu Hluttaw to urge the president to assess whether [the Letpadaung expansion] should be allowed to continue and, if allowed, how it should be done” based on the findings of the commission.
The commission should consider the effects of the project on society and environment, the measurable and non-measurable short- and long-term benefits for the state and the people, and will of the public, the motion said.
The Letpadaung deposit has 1.478 billion tonnes of copper ore with a copper content of 0.38 percent, as well as about 577 million tonnes with 0.44pc copper, according to 2007 estimates, making it the largest deposit in Southeast Asia.
In 1996, Canadian company Ivanhoe and the Ministry of Mines formed a joint venture called Myanmar Ivanhoe Copper Company Limited with an equity ratio of 50:50 and produced copper from the Sabetaung, Sabetaung South and Kyisintaung deposits.
In 2006, it produced as much as 39,000 tonnes of pure copper and in 2006 and 2007 earned US$112 million and $160 million respectively.
After Ivanhoe divested its share, the ownership “fell into the hands of” UMEHL, hluttaw representatives were told, and more than 14,000 acres were acquired for the Letpadaung expansion and villages, monasteries and schools were forced to move.
“Though peasants were given compensation of three times the value of cultivated crops, social life, health and the power of human spirit deteriorated. The environment was badly damaged. So the local people strongly protested against it and people all over the country extensively supported their objection,” the motion said.
In his clarification regarding the motion, Lt Gen Wai Lwin said that profit from the project was shared between the government (16.55pc), UMEHL (13.15pc) and Myanmar Yang Tse Copper Ltd (12.63pc), a subsidiary of Chinese arms manufacturer Norinco.
The other 57.67pc covers production costs, including investment, the minister said.
Profit is calculated based on annual production of 25,000 tonnes and a London Metals Exchange price of $6250 a tonne. Last week copper closed the exchange at $7716 a tonne.
The minister also said the investors are “providing social, educational and healthcare assistance to local people” and “using world-standard management practices” to avoid environmental and other damage.
Because the investors will “systematically execute [the project] to honour the contract and for long-term profit, it is not necessary to form a commission”, the minister said.
Rather than put the proposal to a vote, Pyithu Hluttaw Speaker Thura U Shwe Mann asked three times if there were any representatives who objected to approving it and none responded, including the 25pc from the military, ensuring its passage through the hluttaw.
Translated by Thit Lwin