Villagers protesting a Chinese-backed copper mine in northwestern Myanmar are continuing a standoff with police, a day after a woman was shot dead and 20 others injured when the mine’s operator attempted to erect a fence on disputed land, sources said.
The ongoing clashes came amid calls by an opposition lawmaker for renewed debate in parliament over the controversial Letpadaung mining project in the country’s Sagaing division.
At least two protesters were injured during a confrontation with hundreds of police officers and security guards as they entered the second day of a standoff in villages in the vicinity of the copper mine, residents told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Tuesday.
Reports suggested that the protesters injured on Tuesday had suffered gunshot wounds after security forces fired on them in a bid to disperse their group from the area.
On Monday, one villager was shot dead and around 20 others—including security personnel—injured as farmers tried to stop mine operator Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd. from fencing off land for which protesters claimed they had not received compensation.
Despite the standoff, the company continued staking fences on land in nearby villages Tuesday morning and denied its employees had attacked villagers the previous day, despite reports to the contrary by media and local residents.
“We are shocked to hear of accounts airing on social networks about Wanbao staff allegedly beating up villagers and carrying knives,” said a statement posted on the company’s website on Tuesday. “And even stories that mention that we are using Chinese security guards. These stories are hurtful and totally untrue.
“If anything, it has been Wanbao staff and contractors who have been at the receiving end of intimidation and beatings by activists and extremists as they carry out their work.”
The statement went on to say that the start of the project’s construction would allow the company to “continue maximizing the developmental returns for the community and Myanmar as a whole.”
Dong Yunfei, the company’s managing director, told RFA that employees were given helmets and protective glasses to protect them from rocks and sticks thrown by villagers on Monday.
He said Wanbao was erecting fences per the company’s agreement last year with local villagers and the Sagaing division government.
The company has said that since 2011, the project’s partners have offered villagers who lost land in the project area three rounds of compensation, the amount of which was determined by the Myanmar government based on laws and local market prices.
But not all villagers have accepted the offers, saying they were inadequate, and have refused to vacate the land.
Nay Tun, a Sagaing division police officer, told RFA that authorities would issue a statement on Monday’s shooting death of villager Khin Win, after they completed an investigation into the incident.
“I want … [a] postmortem report from a doctor to find out why and how she died,” he said. “Administration officials and villagers are talking [about it] now.”
Meanwhile, several leaders from the country’s 88 Generation student group, doctors and monks from Mandalay traveled to Letpadaung Tuesday to assist villagers injured in the recent clashes.
Lawmaker Khin San Hlaing of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party told RFA that she would submit a proposal to discuss the copper mine at upcoming parliamentary meetings, saying the clashes had erupted because authorities failed to implement the recommendations of a commission that reviewed the project.
“The chairman of the committee has a responsibility to implement [what] the inquiry commission recommended, but the committee hasn’t done everything that the commission recommended yet,” she told RFA.
“We recommended that they hold discussions with local people, but they haven’t done so. That’s why more problems have erupted.”
In March 2013, President Thein Sein formed a committee to implement the findings of an inquiry commission headed by NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi in the wake of a violent crackdown by authorities on protesters at the mine site five months earlier.
During the November 2012 raid on a protest camp, police fired incendiary devices containing phosphorus, injuring more than 100 protestors and monks.
The 15 members of the committee formed to implement the inquiry commission’s recommendations include Union Minister Hla Tun as chairman, Sagaing division chief minister Tha Aye, and Khin Zaw Oo, Wanbao’s managing director.
The final report of the parliamentary commission had advised a continuation of the project despite repeated demands by local residents to shut it down because of environmental damage and illegal land confiscations.
Both London-based Amnesty International and New York-based Human Rights Watch on Tuesday criticized the use of force and Myanmar authorities’ failure to resolve the land dispute issues, the Democratic Voice of Burma reported.
“Under international human rights standards, law enforcement officials must apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms,” Audrey Gaughran, Amnesty’s director of global issues, was quoted as saying.
“Intentional lethal use of firearms may only be used when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life. The Myanmar authorities must immediately establish whether police violated these standards while policing the demonstration against the Letpadaung copper mine yesterday.”
David Mathieson, a senior researcher on Myanmar for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said the protests were evidence of the failure of the 2013 government investigation commission to resolve the contentious land disputes peacefully.
“Ongoing protests at Letpadaung demonstrate the abject failure of the government and the 2013 investigation commission to resolve this vexed land dispute peacefully, and the distain both government and companies have to meaningfully consult with and fairly compensate villagers who have had their land forcibly seized by a project that will barely benefit them,” he was quoted as saying.
He also said protestors should not have resorted to violence against police.
Reported by Kyaw Thu, Kyaw Zaw Win and Way Yan Moe Myint for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.