Burma: More arrests as the old regime betrays its democratic mandatePublished by MAC on 2013-01-07
Source: The Irrawaddy, Reuters, Asian Times, DVB (2013-01-03)
In the wake of major protests last year, against expansion of Burma's biggest copper mine, more Chinese companies have their sights fixed on exploitation of the country's minerals.
Meanwhile, four smallscale gold miners who led a march, protesting against the breaking of an agreement which would grant them rights to continue their own operations, have been imprisoned under a charge of "sedition".
It's a move which does not augur well for the return of democracy to a country still dominated by the military.
Previous article on MAC: Burma: Further arrests, as mining protests continue
Four gold mine protestors sentenced to jail
Democratic Voice of Burma
3 January 2012
Four Burmese gold mine workers, who were arrested for leading a march to Naypidaw in November, were sentenced to six months imprisonment at a Pegu court on Thursday for protesting without permission and instigating public unrest.
The four men were protesting the government's decision to close the small Moehti Moemi gold mine in central Burma to make way for a major conglomerate, called the Myanmar National Prosperity Public Company Limited (NPPCL), which rendered them jobless.
The men, identified as Ye Yint Htun, Naing Win, Nay Aung Htet and Saw Naung, were arrested by police on 23 November 2012, along with forty other miners.
They were then charged for protesting without permission under article-18 of Burma's controversial 2011 law on peaceful assembly and procession, and article 505(b) of the country's draconian penal code for sedition.
"They were fined 10,000 (USD$12) Kyat and given six months imprisonment each under the [sedition charge]," said Ei Mon Kyaw, wife of one of the protestors.
But according to Ei Mon Kyaw, the workers were first coerced into abandoning their dispute with the mining company.
She said that representatives for the four men had met with the NPPCL and Burma's Mining Ministry on Wednesday, where they were asked to sign an agreement to abandon the dispute in exchange for their freedom. The next day they were jailed.
"The company representatives said they would do the best they can to get the four released. So we were very hopeful that they would be freed soon, but then it turned out today that they have been given six months each," she said.
Several earlier rounds of negotiations between NPPCL and the unemployed Moehti Moemi mine workers had failed to reach a resolution.
Today's sentence is the latest in a string of government attacks on peaceful protestors.
In November, the Burmese government attracted widespread criticism for its brutal crackdown on peaceful protestors near the Chinese-backed Latpaudang copper mine in Monywa, which resulted in over 80 monks being severely burnt. A number of activists in Monywa and Rangoon were later arrested for protesting the assault.
The four men are planning to appeal today's sentence.
Chinese Prospectors Stake a Claim in Arakan State
By Nyein Nyein and Khin Oo Thar
2 January 2013
A Chinese company has been given permission to test sand in northern Arakan State for suspected deposits of aluminum and titanium, raising concerns among local people about the possible impact of a mining operation in the area.
The state's mining minister, Aung Than Tin, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that the company is testing sand found along the coasts of Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships for the valuable metals, and said that "if the tests are successful, the project will continue."
The company, called Shwe Shapweye ("Gold Finder") in Burmese, received permission to prospect along the Ale Than Kyaw beach in Maungdaw and Angu Maw beach in Rathedaung from Naypyidaw, he added.
Local residents say that Chinese companies first started making exploratory digs in the two areas in 2010, leaving behind gaping holes and large piles of sand that have since caused mudslides.
"The collapse of these sand pits has damaged the beaches," said Ko Ko Maung, a resident of Rathedaung township, who added that there has recently been an increase in the number of Chinese businesspeople visiting the area.
The Chinese first started coming in 2010 in search of natural gas and petroleum, he said, but instead discovered deposits of aluminum and titanium.
The return of Chinese business interests to the area has prompted local groups to threaten protests if there is any danger of further environmental damage.
A member of Rakhine National Network told The Irrawaddy that "if the project is not helpful for the local residents and there is a significant negative impact on the environment, we will object to it, because other projects operating in Rakhine [Arakan] State have brought no benefits to local people."
State Mining Minister Aung Than Tin said the state government will act in accordance with the locals' desires, but added that "the project is still at a very early stage, and we have not made any decision yet."
Chinese Methods Facing Pressure
By Willian Boot
1 January 2013
They are Myanmar's biggest investors, but wherever their money goes, controversy and protests follow. Now the Chinese are facing growing competition for big contracts from the Japanese and South Koreans and, perhaps, soon the United States as well.
Chinese state or state-linked firms have focused on tapping into Myanmar's natural resources-gas, hydro-energy, copper and timber-and hauling it off to China. But none of it has happened without allegations of land theft, displacement or environmental damage.
Observers say that China's growing commercial influence in Myanmar was one of the factors which pushed the former junta generals to finally reform and open the country up to other investors. It is certainly true that one of the first major acts of the Thein Sein presidency was to stop Chinese construction of the controversial hydroelectric dam at Myitsone on the Ayeyarwady River.
Not only would most of the electricity generated by the project be pumped to China's neighboring Yunnan Province, there would be massive relocation of communities and damage to fisheries and the downstream environment, numerous NGOs have said.
"Over the past two decades Burma's leaders have become increasingly uncomfortable with their dependence on China for trade, aid and arms transfers," said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
"While their desire to reduce that dependence may not be one of the central drivers of the current reform process, it's clear that their move to broaden the country's foreign relations will ultimately erode China's political influence and economic interests," said Mr Storey in a commentary for the Singapore-based think-tank.
Myanmar anger at the cavalier attitude of many Chinese firms operating inside the country has even led to criticism from within China regarding their business practices.
"The reason why Chinese enterprises often become a target of criticism in [Myanmar] is that they lack a clear understanding of the national situation, especially the complicated interest pattern in the country," commented Bi Shihong, a professor of the Institute of International Studies at Yunnan University.
"Chinese enterprises haven't given enough attention to other interest groups besides the [Myanmar] government and its local partners. And they haven't communicated well with the local NGOs and communities. [They] should pay more attention to these challenges when investing in Myanmar.
"They should take into consideration the interests of the central [Myanmar] government, local governments and local communities, so as to benefit all sides," said Prof Bi in the Beijing Global Times, which is owned by the official Chinese news agency Xinhua.
This is a severe scolding for Chinese firms in Myanmar, but it may be too late for Beijing to redeem itself. Japanese and South Korean investment is pouring into Myanmar for vital projects to improve infrastructure - something China has never shown any interest in.
A consortium of major Japanese industrial conglomerates, led by Mitsubishi Corporation, is spending billions of dollars to develop Myanmar's first special economic zone (SEZ) at Thilawa, adjoining the port just south of Yangon. And Korean companies are to build Myanmar's first major new electricity generating station of which none of the power will be exported.
"It is interesting that Chinese business has shown no interest in investing in a [SEZ] at Dawei. I think that is a reflection of the fact that they see no benefit to China from it," regional energy infrastructure analyst Vincent Lomax told The Irrawaddy from Hong Kong. "China has built its exclusive port on the central coast at Ramree Island to serve its purpose of transshipping crude oil through Burma."
Dawei is a stalled project proposed by Thailand for an oil transshipment port with a refinery and petrochemicals plants.
"The Burmese are probably right to question China's motives in their country because everything they have invested in concerns extraction of raw materials or the use of Burma as a conduit. They do this wherever they go in the world," added Mr Lomax.
The contest for Myanmar's resources has yet to begin in earnest, however.
"Small Chinese companies as well as big state enterprises are casting their eyes on neighboring [Myanmar] as it opens its economy to foreign investment," said an assessment by the Financial Times.
One in particular, China Polymetallic Mining, is keen on exploiting Myanmar's lead, zinc, silver and copper resources.
China Polymetallic is privately owned and listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange but it is being backed by the Yunnan provincial government to venture across the border, said the London-based newspaper.
"Yunnan is close to [Myanmar] which has similar mining formations to Yunnan. Also our employees share their culture and living style with people in [Myanmar] so we think it's relatively easy for us to take our operational model [there]," the firm's chief financial officer Li Tao was quoted by the Financial Times as saying.
Myanmar workers and farmers have so far had little but a grim experience of Chinese mining business practices at a copper mine near Monywa, in northwest Myanmar's Sagaing Division. The mine operator, state-owned Wan Bao Company, is accused of complicity in the theft of thousands of hectares of land to promote its commercial interests as well as devastating environmental pollution.
Wan Bao is partnered by the Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Limited, which is owned by the Myanmar military.
"It's time for Chinese enterprises to alter their old habit of only catering to the government in [Myanmar]. Instead, they should pay more attention to the demands of local communities and their cultures and customs," said Prof Bi in the Global Times.
Myanmar, however, will have to accept that their country's geographical location will increasingly make it attractive as a conduit for business-China seeking a route to the sea, India seeking markets in Southeast Asia and Myanmar's fellow members in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations pushing for land links to South Asia and the Bay of Bengal.
The challenge for Myanmar, say economists, will be to manage its new place in the 21st century regional economy without being exploited.
This story first appeared in the December 2012 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.
Myanmar's deep mine of old troubles
28 December 2012
Pyinyananda was chanting with dozens of fellow Buddhist monks when an object landed in the folds of his orange robes and blew up.
The canister contained tear gas, the police later said, but the explosion flayed so much skin from his arms and legs that he remains in hospital weeks later.
"The police gave no warning before they fired," said Pyinyananda, 19, nursing his bandaged arms.
He was one of at least 67 monks and six other people injured on November 29, when riot police raided camps set up by villagers protesting against a $1 billion expansion of the Myanmar Wanbao copper mine in northern Myanmar.
The raids sparked nationwide outrage that dented the reformist credentials of President Thein Sein, a former general whose quasi-civilian government replaced a decades-old dictatorship in 2011. They also underscored how, after a year of often breathtaking change, the bad old Myanmar still looms over the new.
"Our leaders haven't kicked their dictatorial habits," said former monk Nyi Nyi Lwin, better known as Gambira, who was jailed for his role in 2007 pro-democracy protests. "We're no longer an absolute dictatorship, but we're not yet a genuine democracy."
Few ordinary Burmese have felt the impact of reform, but most have high expectations and feel emboldened to speak out. The mine dispute suggests that while 2012 was Myanmar's year of hope and change, 2013 has the potential to be a year of protests and crackdowns.
Intersection of Grievances
The copper mine sits at a crowded intersection of grievances and interests - local, national and international; political, economic and religious.
Myanmar Wanbao is a unit of China North Industries Corp, a Chinese weapons manufacturer. It operates the mine - the country's largest - with the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL), a vast holding company belonging to the powerful Myanmar military.
Villagers say the expansion at Letpadaung, a set of low hills on the west bank of the Chindwin River, involves the unlawful confiscation of thousands of acres of their land. Monks say it has destroyed or damaged the holy sites of a famous Buddhist teacher who died in 1923.
Their months-long protest ended in a pre-dawn, military-style operation reminiscent of the suppression of monk-led protests in 2007. Back then, Thein Sein, a former general, was the loyal prime minister of retired dictator Than Shwe.
The November crackdown triggered a public-relations nightmare. A government headed by an ex-general and filled with former soldiers had used force to protect the business interests of the Myanmar military and of the giant neighbour that had armed and supported it during decades of Western sanctions: China.
Amid nationwide street protests by monks, Thein Sein cancelled a state visit to Australia and New Zealand to focus on damage control. Police and ministers apologised to the monks, and a commission was established to investigate local grievances about the mine. It is headed by Nobel Peace Prize-winning opposition leader Aug San Sul Kyi.
The crackdown came just 10 days after Myanmar basked in a visit from U.S. President Barack Obama. His November 19 appearance in the former pariah state lasted just six hours, but for many Burmese it heralded their re-entry into the world after decades of isolation.
Obama's trip followed news that the U.S. military would invite Myanmar counterparts to observe war games in neighbouring Thailand in January 2013. The invitation was a powerful symbolic gesture toward a Myanmar military that has yet to acknowledge its well-documented human rights abuses.
The mine crackdown now has some wondering if the U.S. rapprochement is too hasty. In a paper published December 12, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, said the Obama Administration's policy "lacks sufficient protections against Burmese backsliding on reforms." It urged Congress to re-impose major U.S. sanctions if Myanmar's progress was insufficient.
Myanmar's reforms have not stalled. But they have entered a complex and less headline-grabbing phase that could test the nerve of Thein Sein's reformers and the patience of his long-suffering people.
This year the government has held a free and fair by-election, all but scrapped media censorship, reformed Myanmar's antiquated currency, and set in motion a crowded legislative agenda to tackle rural poverty and encourage foreign investment.
But there have been setbacks. A year that began with the release of hundreds of political prisoners ended with activists alleging that the government is arresting dissidents almost as fast as it is freeing them. In the days after their crackdown at the mine, police detained at least eight activists in Yangon.
The government still has the trust of the people, said Aung Min, minister of the president's office and one of Thein Sein's top reformers. "It was not a crackdown. It was crowd control," he said, adding that the government has already apologised for the injuries.
The year also started with a slew of ceasefires with ethnic insurgent armies. Several are now looking shaky, and a 20-month conflict in Kachin State between government troops and Kachin rebels is escalating.
And a relationship once considered essential to the reform process is showing signs of strain. Suu Kyi speaks privately with increasing bitterness of Thein Sein, say diplomats and other visitors to her semi-fortified lakeside home in Yangon. Her spokesman, Ohn Kyaing, denied there is any rift.
The mine protest also capped a year in which Myanmar's monks returned as a major political force - for good and for bad. Monks have been famed for years for their pro-democracy stance. This year, some of them were shown to have an anti-Muslim stance as well.
Monks have held street rallies to oppose the mostly stateless Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine State in western Myanmar. There, two eruptions of sectarian violence this year with Rakhine Buddhists left hundreds dead and tens of thousands homeless.
In an October outbreak, monks openly incited Rakhine mobs to attack Muslims. The ethnic cleansing that followed has left Muslims elsewhere in Myanmar fearing for their own safety.
The setbacks should serve as a reality check for foreign investors eyeing business opportunities in one of Asia's last frontier economies, some Myanmar watchers say. The reform process will be lengthy and "very hostage to events," said Sean Turnell, an expert on the Myanmar economy at Macquarie University in Australia. "The mine illustrates the sort of event that could send things off the rails."
"They are not our enemies"
You could fit Yankee Stadium into the Myanmar Wanbao copper mine. Twice.
Giant trucks look like toys as they ascend on switchback curves from its depths. The hole is surrounded by towering heaps of copper ore which, with every new truckload, inch their way towards surrounding villages.
The company's compound in Letpadaung is a neat grid of bungalows surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire and security cameras. Outside the gate is a singed and threadbare lawn where the main protest camp once stood. Inside, riot police march back and forth, shouting and banging riot shields with their truncheons.
"Regular training," said Police Lieutenant Colonel Thura Thwin Ko Ko, 49, one of commanders on duty the night of the crackdown. He is a former army major decorated for bravery during bloody jungle campaigns against rebels in Karen State. ("Thura" is a military honorific meaning "brave.")
Thwin Ko Ko said police had been patient with the demonstrators, who had no legal permission to protest. "They are not our enemies," he said. "They are our brothers and sisters. They are not educated and don't understand the law."
But he said this patience wore thin as people from other areas joined the protest, along with "outside groups" whom Thwin Ko Ko didn't identify. "Our country cannot stand it forever," he said. "So we had to take action."
On the evening before the crackdown, "we asked them to go back to their homes and monasteries at least 15 times," he said. "Nobody wanted to make violent action." More warnings were made at 3 a.m. on November 29, before police used water cannon and threw tear-gas canisters.
The order to clear the protest sites, he said, came from "our superiors" in the Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees the police, and from the office of the prime minister of Sagaing state, of which Monywa is the capital.
Police were told not to fire rubber bullets or even to use truncheons, said Thwin Ko Ko. "We only used water cannon and tear gas." This action was "in accordance with the law." The president's office issued a statement on the day of the crackdown which used similar language.
The burn injuries of dozens of monks still recuperating at Mandalay General Hospital tell a different story.
According to Western diplomats in Yangon, two types of munitions were found at the protest site. One was a canister bearing the letters "CS" - an abbreviation for the active chemical in tear-gas. The other was a smaller, bullet-like munition with no markings.
The munitions were standard-issue police weapons for dispersing crowds, said Twin Ko Ko. If the police had known what kind of impact the munitions would have, they would never have deployed them, he said. "We were really surprised what kind of smoke bomb it is."
Why did tear-gas canisters explode like incendiary grenades? That's one mystery opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's commission investigating the incident hopes to solve by the end of December. "When we can find enough evidence, then we will announce who is guilty and why," she said at a December 6 news conference.
At her request, four children with mental disabilities aged from one to 16 years were sent to Yangon Children's Hospital, after locals claimed they had been poisoned by emissions from a sulphuric acid factory in the area that's owned by UMEHL.
Doctors found "no symptoms of exposing to acid," said a government news release printed on the front page of the state-run New Light of Myanmar on December 14.
Burmese Bin Laden
The state-run media also has been running photos of Thein Sein making offerings at Buddhist temples. With the monk-led Saffron Revolution of 2007 so recent a memory, the president seems at pains to persuade his people that the mine crackdown was an aberration.
The monkhood has about 400,000 members and remains a powerful force in Myanmar. CDs with sermons by celebrated monks take pride of place on street stalls that also sell pirated Hollywood movies.
A key monk in the mine protest was Wirathu (his holy name), a short, shaven-headed abbot at New Massoyein in Mandalay, a vast monastic complex housing almost 3,000 monks.
Wirathu, 44, lives in a monastery whose walls are decorated with larger-than-life photos of himself. In an interview, he said he dispatched 170 monks to Monywa - not to demonstrate, he stressed, but to safeguard the protesters. The police crackdown enraged him, he said.
"Honestly, I felt I wanted to fight weapons with weapons," he said.
Wirathu is also one of the most prominent articulators of Burmese resentment against the country's Muslims, whom he refers to by the pejorative "kalar."
He blames Muslim Rohingyas for recent sectarian violence in Rakhine State, despite evidence, first documented by Reuters, of ethnic cleansing by Buddhist Rakhines in October. He alleged that Muslims deliberately razed their own houses to win a place at refugee camps run by aid agencies. Wirathu said his militancy is vital to counter aggressive expansion by Muslims, who he says marry and forcibly convert Buddhist women.
"I am a Burmese bin Laden," he grinned.
Valerie Amos, the United Nations humanitarian chief, visited the refugee camps in December and described conditions as among the worst she had ever seen. Thousands of Rohingya men, women and children are cramming onto ramshackle fishing boats and setting sail for other Southeast Asian countries.
Former political prisoner and monk Gambira said monks are less anti-Muslim than Wirathu's views suggest. In a nation where a third of all people live below the poverty line, the monkhood will inevitably reflect the beliefs of an ill-educated populace, he said. Gambira also noted that Buddhist monks in Yangon recently held an interfaith meeting with Muslim, Christian and Hindu religious figures.
The copper mine is not the first Chinese project to become the target of popular anger. Thein Sein stunned Beijing after suspending the $3.6 billion Chinese-built Myitsone dam in Sep. 2011 after fierce public opposition to its construction.
In the aftermath of the mine crackdown, the fear now is that simmering resentment could spark protests over Myanmar's largest project, also Chinese-built: a twin oil and gas pipeline being built across the country into China's energy-hungry Yunnan province.
In most of Myanmar, Chinese populations are long-established and well-integrated. Not so in Mandalay and the north, where the copper mine lies. Here, hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrants have settled in the past 20 years, often with citizenship papers obtained illegally.
Their access to credit and business networks in China gives them an advantage over existing native-run businesses, which has raised tensions with locals, reported the Brussels-based think tank Crisis Group in November. "There is clearly a risk of intercommunal violence, something that the Chinese government has long been concerned about," it said.
Suu Kyi's investigation of the mine crackdown will likely be highly critical of the Myanmar police. But it's unclear how far she will risk antagonizing either of the mine partners, Myanmar Wanbao (meaning China) or the military-run UMEHL. Both Beijing and the military are powerful supporters of Thein Sein.
"There will never be an answer with which everyone will be satisfied," she said at a December 6 press conference in Yangon. "But our commission's only mission is to reveal the truth."
Still, Suu Kyi feels that Thein Sein reneged on promises to release all political prisoners, said activists who have spoken with her recently. Fifty-one dissidents were released on November 19, just as Obama arrived on the first visit to Myanmar by a serving U.S. president. But at least 200 remain behind bars, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Burmese human-rights group.
Obama spoke at Yangon University of "a future where a single prisoner of conscience is one too many." Listening from the front row was the former monk Gambira, a lantern-jawed 33-year-old with thick-rimmed glasses.
He had been sentenced to 68 years in prison for his leading role in the 2007 Saffron Revolution protests by monks. He was freed in January 2012 with many other prominent political prisoners. He says he suffers from poor mental health due to torture and abuse while in custody.
On December 1, less than two weeks after Obama's speech, Gambira was arrested for an act of civil disobedience. Soon after his January release, Gambira broke the padlocks on monasteries shut down by the former junta, so that monks could occupy them again.
He was charged with trespassing and vandalism, then released on bail after spending 10 days in the notorious Insein Jail.
Gambira believes he was arrested to prevent him from organising anti-mine protests. He admits to meeting with "angry" Mandalay monks just after the crackdown. "The monks won't budge until the whole (mining) project is cancelled," he said.
The opponents of the copper mine seem unfazed by the government's tactics. As of two weeks ago, half a dozen monks and about 60 lay people, mostly from surrounding villages, had set up a new protest encampment east of the mine's Letpadaung expansion.
"Every crackdown creates a new generation of activists," Gambira said. (Reporting by Andrew Marshall; Editing by Michael Williams and Bill Tarrant)
China seeks copper firewall in Myanmar
15 December 2012
The People's Republic of China (PRC) is attempting to establish a modus vivendi with the new political order in Myanmar. With the violent government crackdown on demonstrators at a copper mine-site at Monywa, in northwestern Myanmar, on November 29, things just got considerably more difficult.
Postponement of the China-backed Myitsone dam project was the price tag for the entry of Prime Minister Thein Sein into the good graces of the West. The PRC has, for the time being, not made a fuss but would clearly prefer that Myitsone was the only big-ticket Chinese project that took a bullet for the sake of Myanmar's rebalanced foreign policy.
The PRC is hoping to shield its projects - such as the copper mine and a twin-pipeline project crossing from the Bay of Bengal to China's Yunnan province - through belated hearts and minds outreach to the public in Myanmar (also known as Burma), and serious jawboning and arm-twisting in the halls of government.
The current government leadership in Myanmar and, to a certain extent, Aung San Suu Kyi, seem on board, at least for the time being. However, widespread resentment of government oppression and Chinese economic exploitation is driving Myanmar's politics, possibly further and faster than the national elite prefers.
The PRC has to worry that the Myanmarese democracy-and-national-reconciliation express, now chugging determinedly to 2015 elections for a parliament that is supposed to be 65% free-and-fair elected and 35% appointed military officers, will not hop the tracks to administer revolutionary justice to Myanmar's generals for widespread human rights violations and corruptly selling out Myanmar's wealth to the Chinese, putting paid to China's economic interests in the process.
Under these circumstances, the last thing Beijing needed was for Myanmar's present government to be seen brutalizing monks and students in order to protect the interests of the Myanmarese and Chinese military in a polluting copper mine.
China's participation in the mine is relatively recent, dating back only to 2010. However, the mine has been in the crosshairs of domestic and overseas Myanmar democracy activists for years. The original investment in the mine came from a Canadian mine developer, Ivanhoe, which was targeted for its alleged willingness to ignore international sanctions and serve as an economic prop of the military junta.
Even Ivanhoe's efforts to divest itself of the mine came in for criticism as it kicked its interest back to Myanmar's government to sell (instead of selling it to the PRC directly), thereby apparently giving the generals a second chance to secure graft on the deal.
The fact that the mine is a joint venture of the commercial arm of Myanmar's military - the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL) - and Wanbao Mining Ltd, a subsidiary of China's main arms manufacturer, NORINCO - added to the shadow over the project.
Copper mines, which generate sulfuric acid in order to reduce the ore to metal, are not the cleanest, most environmentally friendly industrial facilities at the best of times and it is safe to assume that Monywa is not the best, cleanest, or most environmentally friendly of copper mines. Pollution from the mine has been blamed for infertile cropland, tainted groundwater, and birth defects.
Therefore, it is not too surprising that, when the operators started expanding mining operations to a new site, Letpadaung, local and national activists converged in September to set up camps at the gates of the project and demand its closure. Members of the Generation 88 student activist group inserted themselves as mediator/advocates and the demonstrations grew and achieved national prominence.
The international NGO community also piled on, playing up the environmental destruction angle: The Chindwin River is a major tributary of the Irrawaddy River and runs by misty-blue mountains and charming villages while passing through a region of abundant natural resources and fertile meadows.
"The river runs through intact forests in both the Tamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary and the Hugawng Valley Tiger Reserve, the largest tiger reserve in the world. It sustains vital habitats for a wide array of wildlife, including globally endangered species, tigers, elephants and the endemic Burmese Roof Turtle," says the Burma Rivers Network NGO.
Though willing to pay lip service to addressing local and activist concerns, the government was apparently not of a mind to let the mine serve as another area of Sino-Myanmar friction and decided to clear out the several hundred protesters on the grounds that their encampments illegal and unapproved.
Instead of efficiently evicting some rabble-rousing monks and strident students and wiping the slate clean for a fresh reconsideration of the project and the fortunes of the Burmese Roof Turtle by the new, more pro-Western, pro-business political grouping, fiasco ensued.
It has not yet been determined what happened on November 29, but something incendiary somehow got involved - perhaps flares, hot tear-gas projectiles, or some unknown weapon - and several dozen people suffered serious burns as the encampments were cleared out. The national news was dominated by pictures of burned monks and Monywa is now associated with fresh crimes by the regime instead of a new, more democratic order.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) raised the specter of use of incendiary weapons against civilians - a violation of the Geneva Convention.
Myanmar's Eleven Media, an anti-Chinese rabble-rouser that had previously attracted the PRC's ire for false and incendiary claims that pagodas and temples were being demolished during construction at Letpadaung, went with assertions that "chemical weapons" had been deployed during clearance of the camps.
There was also an effort to frame the crackdown as an anti-Buddhist sacrilege - a virtual political death sentence in Myanmar - because the camps were cleared on the night of the eighth full moon, "sacred day of offering woven kahtina robes to the Lord Buddha."
Government efforts to make things right by apologizing to the burned monks were rebuffed, as an article in Irrawaddy, "Monks Suffer in Dignity But Shall Not Forgive", reveals: On Saturday, the Sagaing Division Police Chief San Yu apologized for the raid and claimed that it was an accident, generating nationwide anger.
"We don't accept their apologies," said Wunna Theddhi faintly yet firmly from his hospital bed. "We demand that Thein Sein apologizes to us personally and completely shuts down the project. If they do so, we are happy to forgive them."
"We don't accept their offerings either," said Thusiddha. "For they are trying to appease us for what they have done," referring to some packs of soft drinks sent by the local authorities that lie untouched in the hospital corridor.
Monks refusing alms is the ultimate weapon against unworthy civilians in Theravada Buddhism.
Follow-on demonstrations against the project, and against the Chinese presence in Myanmar, led to further arrests in Yangon, Mandalay, and other locations. A former ambassador of Myanmar to China warned that events could spiral out of control and lead to a crisis in Sino-Myanmarese relations.
Aung San Suu Kyi's visit to Monywa appears to have been originally scheduled as part of the work of a commission to investigate the environmental costs and economic aspects of the project in response to the demonstrations, presumably in order to tweak the project and get buy-in from activists rather than cancel it.
However, the flame-licked debacle of November 29 turned everything upside down. Instead of fact-finding, Aung San Suu Kyi's first stop was at the hospital to commiserate with injured protesters. The commission's mandate and numbers were announced and then readjusted and reannounced in an awkward, public matter to include investigation of the botched eviction.
Notably, despite the fact that pro-democracy activists of Generation 88 (who had been involved in the protests) declined to join the commission, Aung San Suu Kyi still agreed to head it.
The Chinese government announced its expectations for the process in a statement and interviews by the Chinese ambassador to Myanmar, Li Junhua.
While determinedly striking a conciliatory note, providing details on the project meant to clarify that it was not an instance of unscrupulous Chinese rapacity, and stating it would cooperate with the investigatory commission, the PRC made it clear that it wanted acknowledgment that its contract with the Myanmar side was legal and enforceable.
"We made a contract with Myanmar after jointly discussing all issues, such as relocation, compensation, environmental protection and profit sharing, through bilateral negotiations that meet Myanmar's laws and regulations. However, these problems happened because people lack access to this information. So, they misunderstand," he said. ...
Mr Li said the Chinese investor in the Monywa copper mine project, Wanbao Mining, began partnering with army-run Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL) in 2010. Wanbao is a subsidiary of state-owned arms manufacturer China North Industries Corporation, better known as Norinco.
Under the terms of the 30-year contract for the Letpadaung expansion at Monywa, Wanbao will invest US$1 billion, he said, with the Myanmar government to receive 16.8% of the profits, followed by UMEHL with 13.8pc and Wanbao with 13.3pc.
He said the company had paid more than $5 million in compensation for the more than 6,000 acres confiscated for the expansion - or about $830 an acre - and built more than 200 replacement homes, as well as a school, monastery and hospital.
China's fair-and-balanced foreign affairs tabloid, Global Times, clearly regards Myanmar as a major test of the authoritarian holy grail of yoking democratic agitation to the cause of economic development.
In near-daily reports on conditions in Myanmar, it has asserted that democratic aspirations must be heeded but China need not lose confidence in its peripheral diplomacy due to the failure of its investments in Myanmar. What we see in the country is the inevitable impact of its democratization. Of course, Chinese companies should focus more on the people of the countries they invest in. It is the objective requirement of the wave of democratization that has swept over poor countries.
The Letpadaung copper mine crisis has drawn Chinese people's attention to Myanmar.
Democracy has brought hope there, but it has also blocked a major construction project instead of liberating productive forces.
This kind of democracy can neither bring high growth for the Myanmarese economy nor result in tangible benefits for the people. Western countries' lifting of sanctions cannot bring wealth.
Chinese media has determinedly "worked the refs" by declaring that Aung San Suu Kyi acknowledges the principle that contracts be honored. Global Times correspondent Yu Jincui visited Myanmar and reported relatively frankly on anti-Chinese protests. Re Letpadaung, he wrote: "The Letpadaung protests are the largest and most significant ones. Several months of slow boil brought the issue far beyond just seeking more land compensation for local villagers. Locals want the project suspended and Chinese enterprises to be kicked out of Myanmar."
The challenges of appeasing the protesters while protecting and encouraging foreign investment and job creation make solving the issue tricky.
The contract to develop the Letpadaung mine was signed in 2010, under the approval of the Myanmar government. Opposition leader and parliament member Aung San Suu Kyi, who was chosen to head an investigation group into the project on December 1, admitted the necessity of defending the country's credibility during her visit to the mine to meet both the company side and protesters in late November.
Global Times also tried to draw a line in the sand, declaring that if Letpadaung was canceled, China should demand compensation (and not defer the issue, as it has apparently done on Myitsone): "We must not give up on the project. Even if it is eventually stopped, Chinese companies should receive compensation according to the contract and international practice."
On the Myanmar government side, things were apparently in disarray and message discipline took a beating A key government economic advisor, Aung Min, displayed commendable honesty but not a great deal of political tact in announcing the government's desire not to terminate the mine contract, as Aung Zaw, columnist for The Irrawaddy, wrote: "Aung Min, who exchanged some harsh words with protesters at Letpadaung a few days before the crackdown on Thursday, raised the specter of China when he spoke of the costs of shutting down big projects like the copper mine and the Myitsone hydropower dam in Kachin State, which was ordered suspended last year."
"If China asks for compensation, even the Myitsone Dam shutdown would cost US$3 billion," he said. "But China still hasn't said a word about it. We are afraid of China."
Aung Min added that Burma should be grateful to China for its aid in 1988, when the Southeast Asian nation faced a food crisis due to nationwide unrest. He added that in the 1980s, the former Chinese president Deng Xiaoping decided to cut off support to the Communist Party of Burma, weakening the Marxist insurgency against the central government.
"So we don't dare to have a row with China!" said Aung Min. "If they feel annoyed with the shutdown of their projects and resume their support to the communists, the economy in border areas would backslide. So you'd better think seriously."
Many have criticized Aung Min for his undiplomatic suggestion that Burma's giant neighbor might actually try destabilize the country if it doesn't get its way, but others have said that he was merely letting the public know the reality that Burma faces.
Defending Sino-Myanmarese economic and security engagement is not a popular platform in Myanmar, as the reporting of the Guardian on the scene in Letpadaung makes clear: Organisers have given fiery speeches directed at China. "Driving out [the Chinese] company is our aim," Thwe Thwe Win, 24, a vegetable seller from the village of Wat Hmei, threatened by the expansion plans, shouted into the hand-held loudspeaker outside the plant last week. "No Chinese on our soil. No Chinese here near our village," the crowd shouted back.
Ambassador Li stated perhaps with more optimism than accuracy that Myitsone and Letpadaung were the only two troubled Chinese projects in Myanmar.
Although the Myanmarese political elite across the spectrum from Thein Sein to Aung San Suu Kyi apparently have no stomach for a political platform of economic expulsion of China from Myanmar, populist politics encourages an anti-Chinese agenda.
Aung Zaw of The Irrawaddy delivered the unwelcome news that anti-regime agitation and attacks on Chinese economic interests will be a political perennial inside Myanmar: In the future, many activists will no doubt begin to raise the issue of the gas pipeline project and other hydropower projects in Burma. China is one of the main investors in all of these projects.
The Chinese side has taken the position that enforcement of the contracts with PRC companies is a key measure of the openness and rule of law that Myanmar is hoping to sell to Western investors. If, on the other hand, the interests of China and its allies in the Myanmar government and military are threatened, the PRC could presumably quickly make Myanmar, with its welter of aggrieved ethnicities in its unsecured borderlands, a most unwelcoming investment destination.
The Chinese (and Thein Sein) can take some consolation in the idea that the re-emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi into political life means that dissent is no longer dominated by the priorities of vitriolic chauvinists, confrontational students, and intransigent, juice-box refusing Buddhist monks.
As Aung San Suu Kyi plans her path to national political power over the next five years, she is probably considering a middle path between populism and canny compromise. In a press conference on December 6, she struck some "sanctity of contract" notes that the PRC probably found reassuring:
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said the conflict over the mine was the result of a lack of transparency and accountability between the government and the public. She said she valued public participation in the investigation process but warned against unlawful acts.
"If people want to enjoy the rights of citizenship they also should accept the responsibilities that come from that," she said.
"[Letpadaung] residents said they want to stop the project completely when our team members discussed it with them. We will take into account their opinion. But we understand that this project is being done in accordance with a contract. Therefore, we must negotiate with each other and solve the problems through peaceful means. That's the democratic way, so if we want to build democracy state, there must be a negotiation process. It's not democracy if we just stand for what we want without negotiation."
The commission's conclusions are scheduled for release on January 31, 2013.
Local Protests against Letpadaung Mine Resume
By Lawi Weng
17 December 2012
RANGOON - Less than two weeks after a brutal police raid injured almost 100 protesting Buddhist monks, a group of local villagers, monks and activists have again set up protest camps near the Letpadaung copper mine in northwestern Burma in order to demand that the Chinese-backed project is halted.
Last week on Dec. 12, a group of around 150 protesters-consisting mostly of local villagers, around 30 monks and several activists-built new camps some 100 meters from the mine's gate, said Thaung Htike, a student activist who helped set up the camps.
"We will not leave from this camp unless we get our demands and we will not even try to ask permission to open this camp because they ignored our requests in the past," said Thaung Htike, adding that protesters were not afraid to defy local authorities, although their numbers had fallen because harvest time had begun.
The authorities had immediately warned protestors not to resume their activity, according to protesters, who said Sar Lin Gyi Township Township Administration Officer Zaw Aung had visited on Dec.13 to tell the group to pack up and leave. Tin Myint, deputy director-general of the general administration department of the Home Affairs Ministry, also visited to tell villagers to end their activism.
Protestors said government security forces had been stationed near the gate of the mine, at the site of the former protest camps that were raided on Nov. 29.
"They enforced full security at our former camp site. We wanted to settle this new camp at the site of the last one, but we could not do it," said protestor Ko Latt, who is an activist and a former political prisoner.
The demonstrators said they wanted a complete shutdown of the mine near Monywa in Sagaing Division, which is run by the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited as a joint venture with China's Wan Bao Company
They also demand a full investigation into the raid to determine who was responsible for ordering it. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi leads a special commission to assess the social and environmental impact of the mine project and whether it should continue, but the crackdown is not in its purview.
Protestor Ye Yint Kyaw, a community leader and the only member of the commission who represents local villagers, said the villagers want to have more representatives on the commission.
"They told me that they are not happy with the commission. At least three people should be able to join as they represent 26 villages" affected by the mine, he said, adding that this was another demand of the demonstrators.
On Saturday, the government apologized to a group of monks who were victims of the Nov. 29 crackdown, which saw nearly 100 Buddhist clerics injured when riot police reportedly used tear gas, water cannons and incendiary devices.
Protesters set up new camps near controversial mine
Democratic Voice of Burma
18 December 2012
Government authorities in Sagain division's Monywa district have warned locals to shut down new rally camps set up last week to protest against the expansion of the Latpadaung Copper Mining Project.
On 12 December, local activists established two new protest sites after local police launched a pre-dawn assault on the former camps in late November, which left dozens of protesters, primarily monks, with severe burn injuries.
Salingyi township administration's director Zaw Moe Aung instructed the protesters to close the camps but failed to convince them to follow suit.
According to DVB sources on the ground, the Ministry of Home Affair's deputy-director general and member of the Latpadaung Investigation Commission Tin Myint arrived at the camp on 16 December and stressed the need for the protesters to vacate the area.
"The Home Affair Ministry's deputy-director and Investigation Commission member U Tin Myint told the protesters to shut down the camps, but the camps' committee told him they will remain until the Latpadaung Copper Mining Project is fully suspended," said a source who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"We will not let our trees and farmland we've cultivated fall into the hands of Wenbao and U-Paing. We will protect them with our lives," said Aung Myint Thein, who witnessed last month's crackdown first hand.
There are at least 800 protesters, mostly women, and about 20 monks currently at the two camps.
In the wake of last month's crackdowns, demonstrations have been held across the country, which prompted officials to deliver an official apology to the affected monks earlier this month.
However, police officers have continued to arrest activists for protesting without permits.
Yesterday, activist Htin Kyaw was charged under Article-18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law for staging a solo protest without formal permission in Rangoon following the police's crackdown on Latpadaung protest camps last month.
Htin Kyaw, who is well known for protesting against rising commodity prices in 2007 prior to mass monk-led demonstrations, said he refused to sign a paper acknowledging the charges that were being pressed against him. The activists said he also plans to travel to Mandalay to hold more solo protests.