Conflict & Justice

Protests Over Mining Site Test Myanmar Reforms

The sky over the Chindwin River is streaked with gold. Some 50 people congregate by the river bank to watch the sun set behind the Latpadaung mountains. If a controversial $1 billion copper mining project on the other side of the river goes forward, people here say these mountains would be destroyed.

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A man handing out fliers is among 20,000 people who have signed a petition against the project.

"Now it's Aung San Suu Kyi's time and the parliament," he said. "We feel we can finally do things like this, which we couldn't before."

What started as a land and environment issue affecting local farmers in rural Sagaing division has spread to the city of Monywa, and it has drawn support from monks, activists and ordinary people throughout Myanmar.

For decades, the military government prohibited protests. Even signing a petition could lead to prison time. But in the past year, the country also known as Burma has undergone sweeping democratic reforms, including greater freedom of the press, the release of political prisoners, and the election of opposition figures like Aung San Suu Kyi. Just this month, President Obama paid a visit.

Across the river from the sunset demonstrations, protesters set up six camps near the site of the copper mining project. U Ar Sein Na, a monk who arrived at last month, said he won't leave until the mining project is abandoned.

"If the government attacks us, we will bow their heads and suffer," he said. "We will express ourselves peacefully and without violence."

A line of armed police with riot shields stood near by. They were just down the road from the white gates of the Chinese company, Wan Bao. The mining project is a joint venture of Wan Bao and the Burmese military-owned company, UMEHL. The companies are accused of seizing nearly 8,000 acres of land from 26 villages, without giving adequate compensation or without adequate public consultation. And anti-China and anti-military sentiment is running high here.

Aung Zaw Oo was head of one the villages marked for relocation. When he refused to move, the police threatened to arrest him.

"I told them they could do what they liked, arrest me and take away my motorbike," Aung Zaw Oo said.

Most of the villagers accepted the compensation, according to Wan Bao. And some people here see the mining project as an opportunity. Chit Min Thu, an engineer, agreed to relocate and is now doing a nine month training program with Wan Bao.

"For the older people who work in farming, they don't want to lose their traditional ways," he said. "What will they do for a livelihood? But the company said they'll give us job opportunities, so we're relieved about that."

But many of those who relocated felt they had no choice but to give up their homes and land. Technically the state owns all land here, and although Wan Bao maintains that it paid villagers a fair price, it was often the local authorities who negotiated the terms, at a time when standing up against the government was dangerous.

Ma Aye Nwe's case is typical. About two years ago she signed a contract that she wasn't allowed to read. She said she was given a little more than $600, an amount she thought was compensation for three years of lost crops. It turned out that the contract she signed gave away her ten acres of land to Wan Bao. She said the money is gone now and she no longer has a way of earning a living.

"Please stop the Latpadaung project completely," she said, weeping. "For the 26 villages here, this mountain is our life."

Ma Aye Nwe was one of hundreds of peaceful protesters who, despite warnings, slept at the protest camps last Thursday.

Before dawn the police moved in. They used water cannons to disperse the protesters. Then they firebombed the sleeping monks and farmers.

One monk, Wi Theik Da Dhamma, said it burned the robes off his back.

"Some of the bombs exploded in the air, shooting flames. Others exploded on the ground — everything was on fire," he said. "I knew the police were going to break up the camp. I just didn't expect it to be so terrible."

Aung Myint Htwe, a local farmer, tried to shield the monks. Now his face is scarred and burned.

"The bombs separated into small pieces, the size of raspberries," Aung Myint Htwe said. "The bomb exploded into my face. I couldn't see anything."

The crackdown on the protest camps drew national coverage and condemnation. Aung San Suu Kyi went to Monywa and ordered the police to apologize, which they did. The Burmese government initially issued a statement saying excessive force was not used, but retracted that a few hours later. It has since ordered two investigations, one into the violence and the other into the land grab in Monywa. The camps near the project site have disbanded, but the protests haven't stopped.

For years, the Myanmar government enjoyed absolute control over its citizens. Now the balance of power is shifting. Land grabs by foreign and Myanmar companies is one of the most explosive issues in the country today. As sanctions lift, land speculation soars and foreign investment increases, the tension between corporate interests and the rights of ordinary people is evident. Now, some of those people have the confidence to speak out. While the government seems committed to reform, the events in Monywa suggest that the struggle over democracy is far from over.

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    Daw Aung San Suu Kyi addresses crowd of people. (Photo: Becky Palmstrom)

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    The Latpadaung mountain range stands behind a crowd waiting to hear Nobel Peace Prize winnerm, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi speak. (Photo: Becky Palmstrom)