Updated at 10:00 a.m. EST on 2012-08-23
More than 1,000 residents of 12 villages in northwestern Burma held a rare protest Wednesday over the confiscation of their land for the expansion of the country’s largest copper mine, which is partly owned by China and which they say has forced them to relocate without proper compensation.
The villagers, from the Sagaing region, marched nearly five miles from Letpadaung hills, the site of the planned expansion of the Monywa mine, to Salingyi town to protest the confiscation of their nearly 8,000 acres (3,237 hectares) of farmland.
The villagers maintain that concerns over relocation, pollution, and compensation have not been addressed by the mine’s developer, Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper, which operates in partnership with Burma’s Ministry of Mines and the army-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. (UMEHL).
Myanmar Wanbao is a subsidiary of state-owned Chinese arms manufacturer North China Industries Corp. (Norinco).
Villagers said that after arriving in nearby Duhtaut village, their march was stopped by local authorities.
Representatives from each of the 12 villages were invited to discuss their concerns at the township chairman’s office, but villagers said that after they arrived, no discussion was held.
One of the residents who took part in the march said that the demonstration was prompted by company preparations to continue excavating Letpadaung hills on Tuesday. Earlier encounters between residents and Myanmar Wanbao officials had caused the expansion to be delayed since July.
“Yesterday, in preparation to restart the Letpadaung project, about 100 members of the security forces and a fire engine were stationed at the site,” the villager, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA’s Burmese service.
The site of the mine expansion has been the center of growing unrest since December 2011 when villagers say they awoke in the middle of the night to find Myanmar Wanbao officials dumping waste on their farmland and destroying their crops.
Residents told the Myanmar Times that, when confronted, the officials retreated to the mine site where “three Chinese workers gesticulated rudely to the villagers” from atop a heap leaching area and “dislodged a huge stone” from the heap, sending it tumbling towards the residents at the bottom.
“We ran back to avoid it. They were trying to kill us, even though there were local government officials and police up there too,” a resident told the newspaper.
The Myanmar Times quoted Myint Aung, deputy general manager of Myanmar Wanbao, as dismissing allegations that the villagers had been attacked.
He said his company had already paid 5 billion kyats (U.S. $5.71 million) in compensation for the crops on the land it needed for the expansion project and that Myanmar Wanbao would pay 3 million kyats (U.S. $3,500) in rent a year to the government for each square kilometer (0.4 square mile) used for the project.
Village leaders have said that relocated residents have been placed in new villages outside the project area, but that more than half of the 470 affected households had so far refused to move.
Myint Aung said that some 200 families had moved and received additional compensation of between 400,000 kyats (U.S. $460) and 1 million kyats (U.S. $1,140) based on the type of home they had lived in.
But villagers say that in addition to not wanting to leave the area, the compensation that they have received has been inadequate and they have criticized Myanmar Wanbao for refusing to engage with them or explain what the plans are for the expansion project.
According to Myint Aung, following the U.S. $1 billion expansion, the site will be able to ramp up its yearly production to 100,000 tons of copper per year for about 30 years from 30,000 tons per year currently.
Villagers also contend that Myanmar Wanbao’s expansion of the mine site will result in pollution of the area’s groundwater and agriculture—a claim that Myint Aung denies.
Wednesday’s march follows a number of recent moves by area inhabitants to block the mine expansion.
On July 16 authorities ordered a night curfew after villagers protested over the December destruction of their crops. Villagers also sent a letter of appeal to Burmese president Thein Sein, but never received a response.
On Aug. 18, villagers distributed letters of appeal over their forced relocation in various locations around the Monywa district of Sagaing region.
Villagers were also refused permission to hold a peaceful protest on July 30 by an official from Salingyi township. Residents had planned to call for the lifting of an order that allowed authorities to shoot people on sight if they enter restricted areas near the mine expansion site.
The Monywa mine is not the first Chinese-backed project to draw ire from the Burmese public.
Last year, the Burmese government stunned the world when Thein Sein announced that the massive Myitsone dam project had been suspended after it was assailed by green groups and opposition parties for its potential environmental and social impacts.
Located on the headwaters of Burma's key Irrawaddy river, the dam was to generate some 6,000 megawatts of power, most of which was to be exported to power-guzzling China, while creating a reservoir the size of Singapore with a depth of nearly 70 stories, affecting tens of thousands of people.
Nongovernmental groups in Burma, where a vast majority of people have no electricity, are now demanding that other Chinese dams planned or under construction in the resource-rich country be also reviewed or shelved.
Critics say the Myitsone dam would submerge dozens of villages, displace more than 10,000 people, and destroy the ecology of the Irrawaddy, Burma's lifeline and longest waterway.
The dam is also close to a fault line, which could be hazardous in an earthquake.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story stated that villagers had distributed letters of appeal over their forced relocation in various locations around the Monywa district of Sagaing region on July 18. The villagers distributed the letters on Aug. 18.