Confusion, Mistrust Over Fate of Planned Chinese Copper Mine in Myanmar’s Sagaing

2019-10-01
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Myanmar citizens protest against the regional government after it did not object to a Chinese-backed company's request to conduct a ground inspection for a new copper mine project, in Monywa, northwestern Myanmar's Sagaing region, Sept. 30, 2019.
Myanmar citizens protest against the regional government after it did not object to a Chinese-backed company's request to conduct a ground inspection for a new copper mine project, in Monywa, northwestern Myanmar's Sagaing region, Sept. 30, 2019.
RFA

A Chinese-backed company that received permission from the Sagaing regional government in northwestern Myanmar to perform ground surveys as a first step for a new copper mine project said Tuesday that it has not yet received notice that officials withdrew their approval a day earlier, while residents in areas slated for the inspections say the project will likely move forward anyway.

The regional government nixed its support for permission for Myanmar Yang Tse Copper Ltd. to conduct a ground study amid a protest Monday in the capital Monywa by area residents who opposed the move, saying officials issued their recommendation without public consent.

Ohn Lwin, a manager at Myanmar Yang Tse Copper, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the company had not received an official response from the Sagaing government about changing the original agreement for the proposed project in the Wazeintaung area of Yinmabin township.

“We learned about the protest against the project from Facebook posts,” he said. “We haven’t received an official letter on the issue from the authorities yet, so I don’t have anything to say.”

Local residents and environmental activists meanwhile said they cannot completely trust the parties involved despite an announcement issued by the regional government after it scrapped permission for the ground surveys.

Hla Min Naing, a resident of Yinmabin township’s Thabyae Aye village, which falls in the planned project area, voiced concern that leaders who come to power in the next general election in 2020 might reverse the current decision.

“The announcement has provided momentary relief to the protesters, but we would like to know if the cancellation will hold only during the ruling government’s tenure or if there is the prospect of reviving the project during the next government’s tenure,” he said.

“With this announcement, the ruling government wants to regain the support of local people, which they have lost in the past,” he added. “We cannot trust them completely.”

‘Keep making proposals’

The protesters are also concerned that the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government may have suspended the project to not disappoint voters ahead of 2020 election but that a new administration could allow it to resume.

Some observers said they suspect that the Chinese company might not give up its plan.

Aung Mary, a regional legislator from Yinmabin township who opposes the new mine project, said Sagaing government officials have met the people’s wishes by reversing their decision.

“We cannot complain any further,” she said. “It means that the people’s wishes have been fulfilled. We cannot predict the decision of the future government.”

Ngwe Lin from the Rural People’s Movement Committee, which campaigned in protest of the project, said the company will not easily give up on the new project.

“The Yang Tse company will keep trying to secure this project,” he said. “It seems as if it expects to extend its current mining activities from existing projects in Kyaezintaung and Sabaetaung, so it will keep making proposals and offers to the Union government.”

Lar Htaung Htan, Sagaing’s minister of Chin ethnic affairs, who announced the decision regarding the project on behalf of the government’s chief minister, said officials disagreed over the granting of permission for the ground inspections.

“There were disagreements with regard to this project,” he said. “We don’t want additional problems due to disagreements, so we reversed the decision. It is not a complete termination. We are just acting on the public’s response. We shall act according to public opinion.”

Many residents and farmers in Sagaing region blame Chinese mining companies for the loss of their land without proper compensation and environmental deterioration, especially concerning projects in Letpadaung, Kyaezintaung, and Sabaetaung.

A study conducted by the Rural People’s Movement Committee, comprising 17 political parties and civil society groups, found that the new copper mine project would force the relocation of 120 villages, 86 schools, 139 Buddhist monasteries, and affect the livelihoods of over 80,000 people.

Myanmar Yang Tse Copper Ltd. is a subsidiary of Beijing-based Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd. which operates the controversial Letpadaung copper mine and other mines in Sagaing region, opposed by locals who say they have been shortchanged on land they had to give up and who point to the projects’ detrimental environmental impacts.

The company submitted a proposal to mine copper and related raw materials in Yinmabin, Salingyi, and Kani townships under a joint-venture agreement with the Myanmar government. It requested permission to conduct the ground inspections in 2018.

The central government then requested comments about the project from the regional government.

In September, Sagaing government officials informed Naypyidaw that they would allow the company to conduct mining activities on 28,000 of the 113,000 acres that Myanmar Yang Tse Copper requested.

The remaining land has been designated as farmland, village land, religious land, or cemetery land.

Reported by Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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