Villagers affected by a controversial China-backed copper mine in northwestern Myanmar said Friday that an offer by the project’s operator to compensate them for crops it damaged while erecting a fence on disputed land was inadequate and pledged to continue protests until the property is returned to them.
China’s Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd. and its partner, the military-backed Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd., will pay farmers the highest market rate for crops at the site in Letpadaung, Sagaing division, said Saw Myint Oo, minister of the division’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Breeding.
“We asked township and village administrators to tell villagers that Wanbao Company and Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. will compensate them for destroyed crops on 800 acres (325 hectares)” of the site’s nearly 2,000 acres (810 hectares),” he said Friday.
Wanbao will also harvest the remaining undamaged crops within the fence line that demarcates the project, he said, adding that farmers who had already harvested their crops will not receive compensation.
Villagers, however, rejected the offer of compensation and demanded that Wanbao return land the company fenced off late last month, sparking clashes between residents and police that left one protester dead and dozens of people injured.
“We protested not because we want compensation; we just want our land back,” local resident Win Win Htay told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“The farmers will not accept their compensation.”
The farmers set up a protest camp on Dec. 29 to demand the return of their land and issued a statement the following day saying that they would wait five days to discuss the dispute with authorities, she said.
“If they don’t discuss it with us within these five days, we will speed up our protest,” Win Win Htay said.
She said a local news report had cited a local official as saying the Letpadaung mine would not be stopped because it was a state project, and compensation for land had already been paid to farmers, though villagers maintain the amount offered was inadequate.
“We have been fighting for a long time to get our land back,” she said.
“If we accept their compensation for crops, our long fight will have been a waste, and we would not have had to protest as we are doing now.”
Local farmers and their supporters initiated another rally on Thursday at the mine site to call for justice for the family of the woman who was killed in last month’s clashes and the return of their confiscated farmland.
On Dec. 22, police shot and killed Khin Win who had joined other protesters to try to prevent Wanbao employees from fencing off land for the mining project. Dozens were injured during two days of clashes between police and farmers, reports said.
Afterwards, the local government issued a curfew under Emergency Act 144, which imposed heightened security and movement restrictions in certain areas in and around Letpadaung.
Protests have also been held in other cities where people have called for the Letpadaung project to be shut down and Khin Win’s killer to be punished.
In Mandalay, several hundred activists, monks, students and farmers held two protests this week, denouncing the violent crackdown at the mine site and calling on authorities to act in accordance with an investigation committee’s final recommendations on the project, according to news reports.
In March 2013, President Thein Sein had formed a committee to implement the findings of an inquiry commission headed by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the wake of a violent crackdown by authorities on protesters at the mine site five months earlier.
The inquiry commission found that Wanbao had improperly compensated farmers for their land, and said the appropriation process had lacked transparency.
Activists also protested in the commercial capital Yangon, demanding the closing of the mine, and marched to the Chinese Embassy where police officers blocked their way. Myanmar authorities arrested and charged four activists.
Protestors in both cities called on the national government and Wanbao to carry out the recommendations of the Letpadaung investigation report and stop fencing off farmland.
The protests coincided with the a statement issued by nearly 60 organizations and political parties, criticizing the government for the clashes and calling for the creation of a committee to resolve the problems at the mining site, The Irrawaddy online journal reported.
In the meantime, the government-backed Myanmar Human Rights Commission and police in Sagaing division’s Salingyi township began separate investigations of the fatal shooting, local media said.
National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was chairwoman of the parliamentary commission which investigated the Letpadaung project, last week said the government had failed to implement the body’s recommendations.
But in a Dec. 30 statement, Wanbao claimed to have abided by the investigation committee’s report and recently started to expand the project only after receiving government permission to do so.
“Myanmar Wanbao has followed the Investigation Report's suggestions to the letter and has won recognition by the Implementation Committee,” the statement said.
“The company extended the work area recently because the government agreed to it, and the majority of the communities supported the activity.”
Reported by Khin Pyae Son, San Maw Aung and Tin Aung Khine. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.