Myanmar Authorities Pledge to Preserve Religious Buildings at Mine Site

2013-09-30
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myanmar-letpadaung-march-sept-2013.jpg
Activists and monks march from Mandalay region to the Letpadaung copper mine before being stopped by police in Sagaing region, Sept. 29, 2013.
RFA

Authorities in Myanmar on Monday agreed not to relocate religious buildings within a construction site at a controversial Chinese-backed copper mine until a ruling is issued by parliament, officials said, buckling to demands by villagers opposed to the project.

The decision to hold off the relocation of the buildings, which include the historic ordination hall dedicated to local Buddhist monk Lete Abbot, followed a weekend protest march against the Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing region by more than 60 activists and monks.

The mostly-female protesters began a 120-kilometer (75-mile) peaceful march from Mandalay region to the mine site near Monywa on Sunday, engaging in minor clashes with police in Sagaing region who stopped them from proceeding and detained several of their number.

The detainees were later released following negotiations in which authorities informed the protestors that they would face legal action if they continued their march.

After protesters stayed overnight at a nearby monastery in Sagaing, they signed a four-point agreement with officials on Monday that included provisions for the religious buildings at the copper mining site to remain intact for at least about six months pending a resolution by parliament. 

“We demanded three points: Not to do anything to the religious buildings, including the historic ordination hall, in the copper mine area [in the six months] while parliament discusses the issue; to allow people to pray at the buildings during this period; and not to take action against us protesters who marched to protect our historic and religious buildings,” an activist named Sithu told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“The [Sagaing] division [authorities] demanded that we not carry out any illegal actions while the people visit and pray at the historical area. We put these four points together in an agreement and each side signed it.”

The agreement was mediated by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and members of the government-backed National Head Monks Association.

It was signed by Tin Win, the Sagaing religious affairs minister, and Than Htike, the region’s minister of power and energy, as well as by two leading monks from the group of protestors.

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Police wait for protesters marching to the Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing region, Sept. 30, 2013. Credit: RFA
Signed agreement

Ba Myint, a protest leader, said the protesters agreed to return to Mandalay after the authorities agreed to their demands.

“We don’t want the ordination hall destroyed or moved,” Ba Myint said.

“According to our religious culture, an ordination hall shouldn’t be destroyed. Lete Abbot’s books and the ordination hall are very famous and important to our history.”

Ba Myint said that authorities had agreed to allow a maximum of five people to gather at any one time in the area where the buildings are located and that they would have to apply for a permit three days in advance of a visit.

Myint Naing, chairman of the NLD in Sagaing and a member of parliament, said the two sides signed the agreement to ensure that neither went back on their word.

“The protestors and authorities discussed first and came to a verbal agreement. After that, the people asked to sign a written agreement so that neither would be able to easily break their promise,” he said.

“A copy of the agreement will be given to the protestors. The authorities said they will help the people if they abide by the law.”

Also on Monday, the public relations manager for Wan Bao, the Chinese company that operates the Letpadaung copper mine, told reporters through a translator that his company would work to appease area residents on the issue of the historic and religious buildings.

“We will move the buildings to other locations or construct new ones,” the public relations manager, surnamed Kico, told reporters during a briefing at Wan Bao’s office near the mine site.

“We will do anything [the public] ask[s].”

Addressing grievances

Earlier this month, president’s office minister Hla Htun told RFA that authorities would address local grievances over the copper mining project and were “going to work on moving [Lete Abbot’s] monastery, a religious building, and a pagoda from the mine area.”

Hla Htun said that the government would also compensate villagers who have lost their land to the mine, work on social and economic development in the region, and address environmental concerns related to the project’s impact.

Last week, around 400 villagers marched against the mine saying they fear a harsh government crackdown after a Sept. 30 deadline for them to accept financial compensation for giving up their land for the project.

Local authorities are pressuring villagers to accept the compensation offers, but some 60 percent are holding out, according to activists, prompting fears of a confrontation with police.

A brutal police crackdown on protests against the mine last November provoked a national outcry and prompted a government probe that set in motion a revised plan for the mine including higher compensation for local residents.

Residents have protested since 2012 after the start of an expansion of the mine, which was begun under Myanmar’s former military junta regime, saying their land was confiscated illegally.

They have also demanded that action be taken against security forces responsible for the use of phosphorous in the November crackdown, as well as against those who “violently” raided protesters at a local monastery last month.

Reported by Yadanar Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.