Chinese workers return to copper mines in Myanmar

Scores of workers arrive to conduct inspections of equipment that’s been dormant for over 3 years.
By RFA Burmese
2024.05.13
Chinese workers return to copper mines in Myanmar The area around the Letpadaung copper mine project shown in a series of satellite images taken on May 31, 2009 (top), Nov. 7, 2017 (middle), and May 7, 2023 (bottom).
Google Earth

About 80 Chinese workers have arrived at two Chinese-backed copper mines in northwestern Myanmar to resume operations that were interrupted by the military coup d’état in 2021.  

China’s state-owned Wanbao Mining Co. Ltd. has two subsidiaries — Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd. and Myanmar Yang Tse Copper Ltd. — that oversee mining projects in Letpadaung and other areas of resource-rich Sagaing region’s Salingyi township.

The subsidiaries operate as joint ventures in partnership with a company owned by Myanmar’s military.

Following the military’s seizure of power in 2021, employees walked off the job at Letpadaung to join the anti-junta Civil Disobedience Movement, reducing the mine’s operating capacity by more than 80 percent, Radio Free Asia reported.

But Wanbao continued producing copper that was transported to Yangon and subsequently shipped to China via sea routes, residents said.

On April 17, Wanbao announced plans to conduct sequential inspections and repairs of any equipment defects in four processing plants that have been dormant for an extended period.

Residents protest to demand that Chinese companies stop operating a copper mine project in Salingyi township, northwestern Myanmar's Sagaing region, on May 7, 2024.  (Yinmarbin-Salingyi Multi-villages Strike Steering Committee via Facebook)
Residents protest to demand that Chinese companies stop operating a copper mine project in Salingyi township, northwestern Myanmar's Sagaing region, on May 7, 2024. (Yinmarbin-Salingyi Multi-villages Strike Steering Committee via Facebook)

“The company continued copper extraction by running the factories sequentially rather than simultaneously,” one resident told Radio Free Asia. “Presently, efforts are underway to restore full operation across all the processing plants.”

Hundreds of junta troops have assumed security measures and are deploying heavy weapons in residential communities to prevent possible disruptions to or attacks on the operations, he said.

Protests

In response to the arrival of the Chinese workers, the Yinmarbin-Salingyi Multi-Villages Strike Steering Committee staged a protest on May 7, demanding that Myanmar Wanbao and Yang Tse halt operations and discontinue collaboration with the ruling junta.

The group of Chinese who recently arrived were provided security personnel and secure vehicles, residents said.

A second resident said junta forces were providing security to prevent potential attacks on vehicles transporting copper, and that surrounding villages had been cleared of resistance forces.

After shipments are loaded onto the vehicles, columns from the Northwestern Command are dispatched to accompany them, he said. 

“They unleash small arms and heavy weapons fire on the villages along the roadside, burning them and establishing security,” the second resident said. 

A May 1 ambush by anti-junta forces on a convoy of vehicles transporting nearly 540 tons of copper along the Monywa-Mandalay Road near Gway Pin Taw village, toppled two vehicles, injuring a Chinese national and a driver, said Lulin, an official from the Myinmu People’s Defense Force who goes by only one name.

The 16-vehicle convoy was escorted by 40 vehicle assistants and supervisors, including Chinese nationals, he said.

Residents protest to demand that Chinese companies stop operating a copper mine project in Salingyi township, northwestern Myanmar's Sagaing region, on May 7, 2024. (Yinmarbin-Salingyi Multi-villages Strike Steering Committee via Facebook)
Residents protest to demand that Chinese companies stop operating a copper mine project in Salingyi township, northwestern Myanmar's Sagaing region, on May 7, 2024. (Yinmarbin-Salingyi Multi-villages Strike Steering Committee via Facebook)

“I believe that the Chinese government comprehends the reality of the turmoil in Myanmar, regardless of whether it’s labeled as insurgency or revolution,” said a former army officer about  Chinese nationals working at the copper project. “In fact, it's not advantageous for them.”

Resistance fighters attacked the convoy because the copper mines are a source of income for the junta, whose soldiers are patrolling nearby villages, setting homes ablaze, and killing civilians, according to the Myinmu People’s Defense Force.

The Chinese Embassy in Yangon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the convoy attack.

RFA could not reach a Myanmar Wanbao spokesperson for comment.

In April 2022, 16 People’s Defense Groups from Salingyi and nearby Yinmarbin townships threatened to destroy the mine if Wanbao brought it back online.

Two months later, the junta said it would defend the suspended Chinese copper mine, seen as a key source of revenue for the military regime, after resistance forces threatened to destroy the project if operations resumed.

After the coup d'état, only one person remained there to manage the company, said one of the residents. 

Translated by Kalyar Lwin for RFA Burmese. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.

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