Burma’s opposition must not let the controversy surrounding a Chinese-backed copper mine divide its ranks, a prominent student activist said Friday, after residents near the site expressed anger over a parliamentary commission’s decision to push forward with the project.
Min Ko Naing, a member of the 88 Generation democracy movement, said that residents of villages around the Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing division’s Sarlingyi township must not lose sight of larger national goals, despite disagreements they have with the commission led by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
“We all are concerned that there will be discord amongst the people even before we see any benefits from the project,” he told RFA’s Burmese Service.
“In particular, we don’t want any divisions between our comrades who have been working for democracy for a long time—the public which has suffered from the problems caused by Burma’s political history and our leader [Aung San Suu Kyi], who we all rely on.”
Min Ko Naing, whose movement comprises activists who were part of 1988 student-led protests against Burma’s previous former military regime, said that the villagers and Aung San Suu Kyi’s commission should hold a frank discussion about how they can work together to resolve the dispute, now that each side has presented its opinions on the project.
“The Letpadaung problem is a challenge for us. I want to change this challenge into an opportunity. I want all citizens to practice problem solving taking the different points of view and disagreements into account to get what we all want,” he said.
Villagers say that their land was illegally confiscated by the mine as part of an expansion agreement with the former military regime and have called for an end to the project, which they say will pollute the area.
Meeting with villagers
Aung San Suu Kyi met with villagers in Sarlingyi on Wednesday and Thursday and assured them that they will be paid swift and higher compensation, as she moved to calm crowds angry over the commission’s decision to proceed with the project.
Beginning Friday, she said, they will be able to submit applications to receive compensation from project developer Wan Bao Co.
The panel’s report, released on Tuesday, found that land in the area is worth 1.5 million kyat (U.S. $1,730) per acre, much more than the 5 to 80 kyat (up to U.S. $.09) per acre that had previously been offered to residents under an old law dating from the rule of Burma's previous military junta.
The commission, formed after a brutal police crackdown on protesters in November, said a portion of land allocated to the project should be returned to the villagers.
But it also recommended that expansion of the mine—which is a joint venture between the Burmese military’s Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd. (UMEHL) and Wan Bao, a subsidiary of state-owned Chinese arms manufacturer Norinco—be allowed to continue.
During her visit to Sarlingyi, Aung San Suu Kyi was confronted by hundreds of villagers demanding a complete halt to the project and accusing her of colluding with Wan Bao. They rejected any compensation and said they don’t want the mine, even if it brings jobs and economic prosperity to the area.
‘Subject to change’
Min Ko Naing said that the villagers must understand that the report is only a recommendation to the government on how to proceed with the mine project and is “flexible” in nature.
“We recognize the people’s concerns and suffering because of this issue. We would like to comfort people by informing them that this is just a report—not a decision or a government order. The future plan will be considered based on this report. We should continue listening to the voices of the residents and the voices of the people who are working on this case,” he said.
“What I understand is that the way we continue working on this case will be based on what we hear from those voices. As this is not a final decision or a government order about the copper mine project, it is still subject to change.”
Min Ko Naing said that the villagers and people representing them have a right to continue their protests so that policymakers will know how to protect their interests when they decide how to proceed with the project.
In November last year, a police crackdown on protest camps near the mine site sparked widespread popular anger across the country after more than 100 people including monks suffered severe burns and other injuries.
This week’s report by the inquiry commission found that ill-trained police had used smoke bombs containing phosphorus, a highly flammable chemical, to break up the protests, but failed to hold any official accountable.
Min Ko Naing said that regardless of what the police used in the raid, those who ordered the action that resulted in injuries to peaceful protesters should be punished.
“The authorities should take action against the people who ordered the use of those bombs. I am not saying this with a feeling of revenge,” he said.
“Whatever we do, we should take responsibility for it. If not, what will we do if the authorities use those kinds of bombs during a crackdown on peaceful protests in the future?”
He also called for “more transparency” from the commission’s report, saying that the villagers should be informed of exactly how the profits from the project will be divided.
“Although we were told that there are profits and other benefits from the project, we don’t know in what amount … This report needs more transparency. People must know the system that will be used to divide the profits from the project,” he said.
“What we understand is that the government would receive tax from the project, but the UMEHL and Wan Bao Co. will definitely make [unspecified] profits. So, the people don’t feel this project is in the national interest. This is a point that should be reconsidered.”
Min Ko Naing said that he agreed with some observers who have suggested that the project should be suspended temporarily to ensure that the mine operators follow the recommendations made in the commission’s report, after which a new agreement should be signed.
He also agreed with critics who said that a new commission formed to implement the report’s recommendations must include representatives of the villagers opposed to the mine, which it currently does not.
Reported by Kyaw Kyaw Aung for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.