A controversial Chinese-backed copper mine in northwestern Burma will proceed despite a growing national outcry over the project, including months of mass protests by villagers whose land has been taken away for the venture, according to local authorities.
The governor of Sarlingyi, the township where the giant copper mine is situated, sent a notice to six village heads in the area on Wednesday instructing them to inform residents that the mine would not be halted, as it is a “friendship” joint venture between Burma and China.
The project in the Letpadaung mountains is owned jointly by the Burmese military’s Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd. and Wan Bao Co., a subsidiary of state-owned Chinese arms manufacturer North China Industries Corp. (Norinco).
“The project will not be stopped but will continue, as it is a two-country friendship program between Burma and China,” said the notice sent by governor Zaw Moe Aung to the heads of Phaunggatar, Ywashe, Letpadaung, Gon, Taungpalu, and Moegyo Pyin villages.
It said villagers—who charge that the mine developers have illegally confiscated more than 3,200 hectares (8,000 acres) of farmland from 26 villages without providing adequate compensation—had already been given complete compensation.
“The Union of Myanmar Economics Holding Ltd. has already fully compensated for the land and its crops.”
“Therefore the project will not be stopped, and any attempt to stop the project by villagers will face action in accordance with existing laws,” it warned.
News on the government’s refusal to yield to pressure from the villagers came as some 2,000 villagers and supporters convened a forum near the mine in Sinde village to discuss opposition to the project.
The inaugural Letpadaung People’s Conference drew support from over 40 organizations from around Burma, including civil society groups and ethnic political parties.
Myint Myint Aye, a representative from a social welfare network in neighboring Mandalay division’s Meiktila town, said that she had come to help organize the forum because the Letpadaung villagers’ struggle against the project had become a national problem.
"This is not only a Letpadaung issue anymore, but a national issue, and that's why we are joining hands with them.”
“We just have to participate because people in this region will eventually lose their livelihoods due to the mining project. We can't look away, and neither can the authorities,” she said.
“If the authorities do not listen to the people, they will not get support from them. If this is not good for the country, we will all be affected.”
Villagers in Sarlingyi township near Monywa city in Sagaing division have staged mass demonstrations against the mine over the past few months, backed by locals and rights groups around the country.
The villagers have also mobbed Wan Bao's offices since August to demand a cancellation of the mine, the return of confiscated lands, a stop to forced relocations, and an end to the destruction of crops and the dumping of polluted waste on their fields.
At the forum Thursday, conference organizers read messages of support sent by groups and activists including the Association for the Assistance of Political Prisoners, the United Nationalities Alliance, the Kayan New Party, the Kokant Democratic Party, the Burma Communist Party, and writer Dagon Taryar, among others.
Participants demanded that the mine be shut down, saying it does not benefit the country and the people. They also addressed other national issues, including ethnic violence in Rakhine state and Kachin state, according to attendees.
Han Win Aung, a human rights activist who participated in the conference, said the meeting was intended not only as a forum to "freely discuss" issues surrounding the copper mine but also political problems.
No police were seen at Thursday’s conference, though authorities had observed previous protests by the group in the area, activists said.
Last week in Sinde, thousands of people staged a funeral protest invoking the spirits of their ancestors to call for the protection of the land and planted toddy palms to replace those they said had been destroyed by the mining company without adequate compensation.
The Asian Human Rights Commission, a Hong Kong-based independent organization monitoring and lobbying rights issues in the region, said in its message to the forum that it was “very concerned” over a potential “land-grabbing epidemic” in Burma.
It said that it is only through protest actions like those carried out by the Letpadaung villagers that the country will be able to avoid a looming rash of land grabs.
It said their struggle “sets an important example” for others in Burma dispossessed of their land through “the use of violence and illegal tactics by powerful interests.”
The copper mine issue encompasses “all dimensions of the struggle for political, legal, and social change in Myanmar [Burma] today, including fundamental rights to freedom of speech and assembly, to organize and hold opinions, and to participate fully in public life without fear of persecution or violence,” the commission said.
Separately, the Chinese ambassador to Burma said Beijing will stop backing Wan Bao’s development of the mine if the project does not benefit Burma.
“If this project brings no benefit to the Myanmar [Burmese] people, the Chinese government will not support or endorse it,” Ambassador Li Junhua said at a press conference on Sunday, according to a press release posted on the Facebook page of the Chinese Embassy in Burma.
“Because it not only concerns the image of the Chinese company, but also the image of China and the Chinese government,” he said.
His comments came on the same day that an opinion piece in Chinese state media’s Global Times newspaper said Chinese companies need to “attach more importance to grassroots voices” in carrying out investment projects such as the Monywa mine.
But an article the following day by the Chinese state news agency Xinhua said opposition to the dam is “misguided” and that the protests have been stirred up by “political instigation.”
Last year, Burmese President Thein Sein cancelled a plan to build the Chinese-backed Mytisone dam in northern Burma’s conflict-ridden Kachin state that was to provide hydroelectricity to China, after mass opposition among locals.
Reported by Ko Ko Aung, Nayrein Kyaw, and Thuzar for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.