A Chinese mining company will begin copper production at a controversial site in central Myanmar in May, a month after the new government led by the opposition party comes to power, a corporate spokesman said Friday.
The large mine project operated by China’s Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd. Company and Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. (UMEHL), a Myanmar army-owned conglomerate, in the town of Letpadaung in Sagaing region has come under fire by local farmers who have long protested the company’s land takeovers in the area.
“We will start copper production in May, a month after the new National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government takes power,” Dong Yunfei, Wanbao’s spokesman, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
He added that Wanbao expected to benefit from good relations with the NLD government because party leader Aung San Suu Kyi would make policy decisions based on the rule of law and national reconciliation.
“So we believe the country will be more developed,” he said.
The mine is one of several Chinese operated megaprojects under way in the Southeast Asian nation that have come under fire from locals because of environmental damage and expropriated land.
Such protests prompted the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDAP) led by President Thein Sein in 2011 to suspend construction of the Myitsone Dam and hydroelectric power development project by the China Power Investment Corporation [CPI] in Kachin state for five years.
Dong Yunfei, however, said he wasn’t concerned that a similar fate might befall the Letpadaung project.
“Huge projects like this one are planned, agreed to and signed by both sides under the full extent of the law and legalities,” he said. “So, everything will proceed according to the law.”
Aung San Suu Kyi, whose NLD party won general elections last November by a landslide, had led a parliamentary inquiry commission on the Letpadaung project, calling for more transparency in the project’s land appropriation process and for police riot control training in the wake of a violent raid on protesters at the mine site in 2012.
In 2014, she accused the government of ignoring the commission’s recommendations to improve conditions at the mine, which she said sparked clashes that December between police and farmers trying to prevent Wanbao employees from fencing off land for the project. The incident left one farmer dead and dozens injured. The USDP, however, rejected her claims.
In response to continued protests, Wanbao canvassed local villages in 2014 and 2015 and met with farmers one-on-one to try to resolve the issue, Dong Yunfei said.
“We are still trying to meet the demands of local people,” he said, adding that Wanbao wanted to compensate villagers who had not accepted money the company previously offered them for land it had taken for the mining site.
“Our doors are open all the time for compensation,” Dong Yunfei said. “We suggest that those who haven’t taken the compensation come forward.”
Wanbao offered money to the family of Khin Win, the farmer who was shot and killed during the December 2014 protest, to compensate them for their loss, but they never showed up to collect it, he said.
“We heard there was division of opinions among the family members,” he said. “We don’t know the latest situation now.”
Wanbao, however, has no plan to compensate villagers annually for money they would have otherwise made from crops, because the company leased the land from the government, not the farmers, Dong Yunfei said.
Wanbao and UMEHL previously said they would pay farmers the highest market rate for crops at the site, but locals rejected the offer and demanded the return of their land.
Police stopped 200 farmers last month from protesting the company’s decision not to compensate them for crops that had been destroyed or displaced.
Thwei Thwei Win, a Letpadaung farmer and activist, told RFA that Wanbao has not conducted any further negotiations with locals whose land the company took in the run-up to the start of copper production in May.
“There have been no negotiations or discussions between residents and the company,” she said. “The company had not informed locals about anything. Because of this, I see no way to resolve the issues between the farmers and the company.”
Under the new government, however, Letpadaung villagers expect the NLD to help resolve the matter with Wanbao, she said.
“We expect the new government will do something for our farmers’ problems,” she said. “We also expect to push to the government as well as the company until we finally see results.”
No dealings yet
But NLD party spokesman Nyan Win said the new government hasn’t had any dealings with Wanbao yet regarding the Letpadaung copper mine.
“I think their production plan is according to its own schedule,” he told RFA. “We have no way making any deals [with Wanbao] because government power has not yet been transferred to our party.”
Aung San Suu Kyi must examine whether or not Wanbao has implemented the recommendations of the parliamentary inquiry commission, he said.
“Letpadaung can resume production only after complete implementation of the recommendations of the inquiry commission,” he said. “We don’t know whether the implementation has been done, but we have the commission’s report with the full list of recommendations.”
As for the Myitsone dam, Myan Win said the NLD hasn’t seen documents pertaining to the agreements between China and Myanmar regarding the project.
“There is no transparency, and we haven’t seen the contracts,” he said, adding that the NLD-led government would follow domestic and international laws when making decisions about Chinese megaprojects in Myanmar.
Nevertheless, the NLD will examine such documents, before deciding the dam’s fate, Nyan Win said.
Reported by Kyaw Kyaw Aung, Tin Aung Khine and Thinn Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Kyaw Min Htun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.