A protestor was killed and at least 10 injured on Monday during a clash with riot police near the site of a controversial Chinese-backed copper mine project in northwestern Myanmar, as they tried to prevent their land from being fenced off by the mine’s operator, sources said.
The woman, Khin Win, had joined around 60 farmers from Myogyopin, Sete and Tonywa villages in the country’s Sagaing division trying to stop contractors hired by Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd. from erecting a fence around farmland which they said they had not received compensation for.
Zaw Myint Than from Myogyopyin village told RFA’s Myanmar Service that Khin Win, who was in her 50s, “died from a bullet to the head” after police fired rifles on farmers who threw rocks and launched slingshots at them, though it was unclear whether she was shot by police or mining company security personnel.
He said around 600 police officers had been deployed to the site ahead of the clash.
Another villager, Thwe Thwe Win said police had threatened to fire on protesters while the clash was underway.
“The commander … ordered his officers to fire on me if I came forward and I told him that I would oblige him if he wanted to shoot me,” she said.
“The worst thing was that the Chinese workers beat the villagers with the hammers they brought to erect the fences. The local people were wounded and couldn’t even walk.”
Sources said at least 10 protesters were injured, though some reports put the number as high as 20.
Two officers were also injured, according to a report in the Irrawaddy online journal.
Villagers told the journal that police had increased their presence in the area during the previous week as Wanbao sped up land demarcation for the project.
Wanbao acknowledged that a woman had been killed, but said the events surrounding her death “are still unclear,” according to a statement on its website which also extended the company’s condolences to the woman’s family.
“We understand the police were also at the scene, and we hope they will start investigating this tragic event.”
The company also called the incident “awful given the great turnaround in our relationship with our community.”
“We have achieved amazing progress because we received popular approval for our project through two large community consultations carried out from May until November 2014,” the statement said, adding that Wanbao had been able to begin construction because “the vast majority of the people gave us the OK to proceed.”
“We are unwavering in our commitment to peaceful dialogue, and we condemn any violent and dangerous activity that jeopardizes the safety of the villagers, the protestors, our staff or the police,” it said.
The statement followed another one issued by Wanbao on Monday, saying that it would commence construction of the Letpaduang project by extending its working area to comply with requirements of its investment permit granted by the Myanmar government.
“The company hopes that, with the commencement of construction, the Letpadaung project can reach ‘operational status’ soon where the company can continue sharing the benefits of this project with its community and the whole of Myanmar,” the statement said.
Min Ko Naing
Min Ko Naing, leader of the student movement in Burma in 1988 and an influential political activist, told RFA Monday that he planned to travel to Letpadaung with a medical team to help farmers who were injured in the melee.
“We are not only helping them, but also speaking out about our disagreement over this kind of violence,” he said. “As it is based on business interests, the investors and their governments should think about a peaceful way to invest.
“We have to find a way to solve these problems [because dealing with issues] like this will lead to bigger problems in the future.”
Residents displaced from their farmland in the areas surrounding the mine project have protested previously about the lack of fair compensation for their confiscated lands as well as environmental destruction and the defilement of religious structures.
The copper mine is a joint project between Wanbao and the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, one of two major conglomerates run by the military through the defense ministry.
Another violent showdown between villagers and police occurred in November 2012 when officers used smoke bombs containing phosphorus—a highly flammable chemical—to break up protests against the copper mine project. Dozens of anti-mine protesters were injured in the incident.
The company has said that since 2011, the project’s partners have offered villagers who lost land in the project area three rounds of compensation, the amount of which was determined by the Myanmar government based on laws and local market prices.
But not all villagers have accepted the offers, saying they were inadequate, and have refused to vacate the land.
Reported by Way Yan Moe Myint, Nay Rein Kyaw and Khin Pyae Son. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.