A parliamentary commission led by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has recommended that the expansion of a controversial China-backed copper mine in northern Burma proceed despite environmental and other concerns, triggering outrage amongst activists who vowed to continue protesting against the project.
In a report released late Monday, the panel also found that police had used smoke bombs “containing phosphorus”—a highly flammable chemical—to break up protests against the Letpadaung copper mine project in Sagaing division’s Sarlingyi township in November last year.
It said that the project expansion should not be halted, even while acknowledging that the mine lacks strong environmental protection measures and will not create jobs for area residents.
The report also cautioned that a decision to shutter the mine could discourage foreign investment and create tension with China, particularly in light of the decision by President Thein Sein to suspend the massive Chinese-funded Myitsone Dam hydroelectric project after taking power in March 2011.
The commission found that Chinese mine operator Wan Bao Co., a subsidiary of state-owned Chinese arms manufacturer North China Industries Corp. (Norinco), which jointly owns the project with the Burmese military’s Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd., had improperly compensated local farmers.
The compensation at between 5-80 kyat (up to U.S. $.09) per acre for their appropriated land was based an out-of-date act approved in 1984, the panel said. The current rate for land in the area is around 1.5 million kyat (U.S. $1,730) per acre.
It said that the appropriation process also lacked transparency.
The report acknowledged that smoke bombs containing phosphorus had been used in a police raid on a protest camp at the copper mining site, saying that while the bombs do not generally create a flame, the phosphorus inside them can sometimes burn flammable materials nearby.
It acknowledged that “dozens of people, including monks” had been injured in the incident. Earlier estimates had put the number as high as 100 monks and 11 others that had suffered severe burns.
The commission recommended that authorities receive training on riot-control techniques, faulting the police for not understanding how to deploy the smoke bombs during the raid, which was labeled as harsh by rights groups.
Interests of the people
The commission worked with the interests of the Burmese people in mind, and not to benefit relations between the Burmese and Chinese governments, Aung San Suu Kyi told reporters during a parliamentary recess on Tuesday, after its findings were published in an official Burmese newspaper.
“I am leading and working for the inquiry commission for the country’s future. I am not thinking only about the relationship between Burma’s and China’s governments. It is for the country’s honor and to strengthen development in the future,” she said.
“For example, we need reconciliation between the military and the people … And as far as China is concerned, we should act the same as we would with any of our neighboring countries.”
The Nobel laureate also called on the Burmese people to “think carefully about why residents of villages near the mine are protesting” and “who they are protesting for,” suggesting that they might be putting their own interests before those of the country.
Aung San Suu Kyi said she will travel to Sarlingyi township, some 450 miles (725 kilometers) north of Rangoon, on Wednesday to explain the commission’s findings to area residents.
A 15-member committee made up of government and company officials will work to ensure that the mine project incorporates the commission’s recommendations, she said.
Criticism of findings
But opponents of the mine were dissatisfied with the commission’s findings, saying that it had not included anyone selected by residents of the mine area to assist in compiling its report.
“Local people have rejected and condemned the report that said the project should continue … They have decided to continue protesting and working towards their goal until the entire project is stopped,” Ko Thaung Htike from the RASU Students Network told RFA’s Burmese Service.
“The report didn’t please the local residents and didn’t meet their demands. We will work together with residents until they get what they want.”
The Associated Press quoted Thwe Thwe Win, a protest leader, as saying that she was particularly concerned by the commission’s lack of action against authorities responsible for the raid on protesters last November.
"I am very dissatisfied and it is unacceptable … There is no clause that will punish anyone who had ordered the violent crackdown. Action should be taken against the person who gave the order," she said.
"The commission should think about the welfare of the people, poor local villagers, rather than good relations with China."
Confirmation of the use of phosphorus in the raid also drew criticism on Tuesday from the U.S. State Department, which said the chemical should not be used in any capacity as a crowd control measure.
“We have opposed the use of phosphorus as a crowd control agent, and we have urged the government to ensure that its security forces exercise maximum restraint," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
"This phosphorus ... can be quite damaging to humans. There are other crowd control elements that are better suited."
Residents of 26 villages around the mine site have been protesting an expansion of the U.S. $1 billion copper mine project, which they say would appropriate 8,000 acres (3,237 hectares) of land, leaving large numbers of people homeless and creating widespread environmental damage.
They say that the project, which was agreed to in May 2010, was not properly vetted by the country’s parliament because it had been agreed to under the former military junta.
Reported by Win Naung Toe and Yadanar Oo for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.