Over 1,000 villagers invoked the spirits of their ancestors this week to back demands for the closure of a large copper mine in northern Burma, as activists and the mining company filed lawsuits against each other amid persistent protests over the project.
Staging a dramatized demonstration at a graveyard, the villagers said the Chinese co-owned mine in the Letpadaung mountain range near Sagaing division's Monywa city had displaced them from land cultivated by generations of their ancestors.
At the “Cries of Our Ancestors” demonstration in a cemetery near Sinde village on Tuesday, protest leaders dressed up as the dead with body paint and loose hair and lay on graves like underworld spirits amid shouts decrying the loss of land.
"We went there and cried. We cried for the land lost, for the disappearance of the Letpadaung mountains,” Phyu Phyu Win, one of the protest leaders, told RFA as people from 26 villagers protested..
“We cried for our suffering, so that even the souls of the dead and spirits from underworld will come out to protect our country and land—that’s the kind of theatrical performance we did."
Phyu Phyu Win was among 12 activists detained last month at protests over the mine, which is being developed by Wan Bao Co.—a subsidiary of state-owned Chinese arms manufacturer North China Industries Corp. (Norinco)— and Burma’s army-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holding.
Villagers charge that the mine developers have illegally confiscated more than 8,000 acres (3,200 hectares) of farmland from 26 villages since 2011, and say they fear pollution in the area.
In protests that have attracted growing support from the people and rights groups around the country, villagers have mobbed Bao's offices since August to demand adequate compensation, the return of confiscated lands, a stop to forced relocations, and an end to the dumping of waste on their fields.
Separately on Tuesday, local villagers filed a lawsuit at the Salingyi township suing Wan Bao and the Union of Myanmar Economic Holding. They charged that the companies destroyed monasteries in the area, took villagers’ land, and threatened them.
Only three representatives per village were allowed to register as plaintiffs in the suit, while other villagers signed as witnesses.
The measure follows a defamation lawsuit filed by the mine’s developers last week against 16 activists for their role in protests involving the burning coffins in effigy bearing the mining company’s name.
Palm tree protest
Protests continued near Sinde village on Wednesday, with some 2,000 villagers staging a palm-planting demonstration to lay claim to land that had been cleared for the mine.
Some 2,000 villagers planted toddy palms on a 20-acre (eight-hectare) area outside Sinde village to replace those bulldozed by the mine developer.
"We are planting in protest against the copper mine project by Wan Bao company, in an area where they have cut down altogether about 1,000 palm trees. We are replanting 2,000 trees here, one tree per person,” a Sinde resident named Kyaw Naing said.
While planting the palms, protestors shouted chants calling for a complete stop to the mine project while carrying signboards with slogans such as "Greening our country and our village with our strength,” he said.
The villagers had not received permission to plant trees on the land, and Wan Bao posted security personnel near the mine area and around the mountain to monitor their activities from a distance with binoculars, he added.
Another Sinde resident, Moe Zaw Tun, said villagers had not received the compensation they were originally promised by Wan Bao for the trees that were cut down.
"At first they said they would give villagers compensation for palm trees higher than three feet, and later they changed it to nine feet. And for the payment, they changed that from 5000 kyats [about U.S. $6] per tree to 10,000 kyats [U.S. $12]. Some people took it, but some didn't. I did not,” he said.
He said villagers were angry about the destruction of the land in the mine area.
"The company bulldozed palm trees and farmland, and now they are building a road here and dumping waste on the land. We villagers think this is not fair. As long as they keep destroying our land, we will keep doing what we are doing."
Reported by Tin Aung Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.