With the clock ticking away for the resumption of a China-backed copper mine project in northern Myanmar, the authorities have appealed to protesting villagers displaced by the controversial project to accept financial compensation, promising them employment opportunities and a flourishing 'mine city.'
Hla Htun, a minister in President Thein Sein's office, said the people's support for the Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing division’s Salingyi township was critical because the authorities were moving to make the project compatible in terms of the environment and public health based on recommendations by a parliament-led investigation commission.
The project, which was suspended last year after mass protests, is set to resume operations in October but at least 11 of 26 villages in Letpadaung—as of Aug. 11—have rejected the offers of compensation by the Chinese company Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper Limited, which is running the mine as a joint venture with the Myanmar military-backed Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEHL).
"People have the right to protest according to law but the nation will derive good benefits from this project and it will also support regional development," Hla Htun told RFA's Myanmar Service.
"We have to consider this as an ideal project because the international community is watching," he said. "All relevant authorities have visited the area and explained [to the villagers] to understand this. Some understand our explanation and they don’t want to protest anymore, but there are some people who still want to protest. We will continue explaining to them."
A brutal crackdown in November last year on protests against the expansion of the mine provoked a public uproar and prompted the government to form an inquiry commission headed by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to look into the future of the mine.
The commission recommended earlier this year that the project be allowed to continue but with some modifications and suggested compensation for villagers that is higher than that offered when the project originated under the country’s former military junta regime.
Hla Htun said the Chinese company had paid total compensation of 7.3 billion kyat (U.S. $7.3 million) to villagers, including for rehabilitating wells, since 2011.
Following the commission's report, the Chinese company had paid 46 percent of the 6.72 billion kyat (U.S $6.72 million) allocated for compensating villagers, he said. In the first compensation installment in 2011, some 4 billion kyat (U.S. $4 million) was distributed to villagers.
If villagers do not accept the compensation by a Sept. 30 deadline, the unclaimed money will be channeled to a development fund for the Letpadaung region, the minister said.
The villagers are also being assured jobs at the mine as well as better infrastructure in the region as the authorities move to implement recommendations by the commission, which had sought greater transparency for the project and procedures to address environmental concerns.
"When we use the country’s natural resources now, we have to follow international standards, not like in the past," Hla Htun said. "Before that, investors worked only for their profit. Now, they have to also consider the local people’s development."
He said the authorities were also mindful of employment opportunities for villagers who had to forgo their land for the copper mining operations.
"We have a plan to hire 1,900 workers when the project begins soon. People who don’t have jobs because they lost their land would have jobs," he said.
The government would also ensure that the Letpadaung area would enjoy better facilities for business, education and healthcare as well as improved infrastructure, including roads and power supply, he said.
"We'll build new villages with power, water systems, good roads and schools for the people."
Hla Htun said that the Wanbao company, a subsidiary of Chinese state-owned arms manufacturer Norinco, is also building a district hospital to be completed in five months as part of larger government plans to develop the area.
"The Letpadaung region will be a 'mine city' in the future," he said. "I want the people to understand our efforts for them and to collaborate with us for our country’s future development."
The project is set to resume next month under a renegotiated deal that gives the government a larger share of the mine’s profits. It also requires that 2 percent of the net profit go toward corporate social responsibility with a focus on immediate communities.
"The new contract was discussed in parliament and at a press conference. Everybody was satisfied because we got what we should get," Hla Htun said.
Residents of 11 villages in Letpadaung said last month they will continue to refuse the compensation, which they consider as too low.
Activist Mar Mar Cho, a local resident, told RFA that one of the demands of protesters was to seek an end to the attempts by the inquiry commission’s report implementation committee to “force” residents before the Sept. 30 deadline to accept the new compensation of 1.2 million to 1.5 million kyat (U.S. $1,200 to $1,500) per acre for lands taken over by the mine.
Residents have also demanded that action be taken against security forces responsible for the use of phosphorous in the November 2012 crackdown, as well as against those who “violently” raided protesters at a local monastery in Zeetaw village last month.
Reported by Win Naing for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.