MAC: Mines and Communities

Burma: Suu Kyi tells communities to halt copper mining protests

Published by MAC on 2013-03-19
Source: The Irrawaddy, New York Times, AFP, AP (2013-03-14)

Last week, the long-awaited report by a commission, set up to investigate violence meted out to protestors against Burma's Letpadaung" copper mine, was publlshed.

Headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, the commission signally failed to satisfy many of those affected by the project, confirming growing fears that Nobel Peace Laureate is becoming far too close for comfort with the military rulers.

For earlier MAC article, see: Continued controversy around Burmese mining

Stop Protests against Copper Mine, Suu Kyi Tells Communities

By Lawi Weng and Thet Swe Aye

The Irrawaddy

13 March 2013

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visited villages in central Myanmar on Thursday that might be displaced by a copper mine
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visited villages in central Myanmar
on Thursday that might be displaced by a copper mine.
Source: Reuters

RANGOON-Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi told communities affected by a copper mine in Sagaing Division's Monywa District on Wednesday to stop opposing the project and accept compensation for the land they lost. Local villagers said they were disappointed by her speech.

Suu Kyi travelled to the township of Salingyi and Monywa in northwestern Burma to inform communities of the result of a new parliamentary inquiry, which she chaired, investigating the Letpadaung Copper Mine.

She told villagers the project should be allowed to continue as the company had promised to implement the inquiry's advice to uphold environmental safeguards, create benefits for the community and to compensate villagers for seizing their lands.

"We have asked the company to first give jobs to our people and second to maintain a healthy environment, according to international standards, and third to provide education and health care for the people," Suu Kyi said in a speech in Salingyi Township.

The mine is a joint venture between the Burmese military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd and its Chinese partner, the Wanbao company, which is a subsidiary of China's state-owned arms firm Norinco.

The company confiscated 7,800 acres (3,156 hectares) of farmland in 2010. Farmers began a protest against the land grab and environmental damage caused by the mine last year. The protest quickly gained support among rights and environmental activists and the general public, who view the project as benefiting only the military and Chinese investors.

Suu Kyi said however, that Burma could not afford to shut down the mine and risk turning away foreign investors. "Our country needs a lot of development. If this company has to stop, our people will lose job opportunities," the National League for Democracy leader told local villagers.

In addition to defending the mining project, the parliamentary report by Suu Kyi's commission failed to hold any officials accountable for a brutal crackdown on Nov. 29. That day police shot smoke-generating incendiary devices into a protesters camp outside the mine, causing severe burns among about 100 monks and villagers. The report was decried by activists and local villagers alike after its release on Tuesday.

When asked about the incident by a villager during a lively discussion, Suu Kyi said the incident was caused by a lack of police training, adding that the local people were wrong to refer to the smoke-generating devices as "fire grenades." "The right word is smoke grenade," she said.

She also urged villagers to end their peaceful actions against the mine, telling them that their protest "is in vain." "You all have to ask permission from the government if you do protest, as our country has rule of law now. Those who do not respect the rule of law, they could get punished," she added.

Many local villagers were disappointed by her speech, as they have fiercely opposed the project for many months and reject the idea of accepting compensation.

"I do not like her speech because she just came here to try to please us. We will continue to ask for a stop to this project," said Myint Win, a farmer from Salingyi Township's Nyaung Bin Gyi village.

He said villagers would persist in their protests regardless of Suu Kyi's plea. "If this project does not stop, we will have bloody fighting with the local authority," he added ominously.

About 300 villagers had organized a local protest against the parliamentary report's findings on the day of Suu Kyi's visit, shouting "End the crony system!"

"I don't want compensation and the inquiry results don't mention who is responsible for the crackdown," said Thwe Thwe Win, a protestor from Salingyi Township's Wetmae village.

Another protestor Yee Yee Win said, "We ask for four things through this protest. First, we don't accept Daw Suu [Kyi]'s speech and second is we don't accept the inquiry commission report and the third we want authorities to withdraw the Article 144 order, and fourth we want an investigation into who ordered the crackdown."

Authorities in Sarlingyi Township have issued an order under Article 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code to prohibit villagers from accessing or using their farmlands-a measure which according to the Asian Human Rights Commission is unlawful as only a judge can issue such an order.


Burmese Laureate Heckled Over Backing Copper Mine

By Thomas Fuller

New York Times

14 March 2013

YANGON, Myanmar - Hundreds of angry farmers heckled and walked out on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese politician and Nobel laureate, during a visit on Thursday to villages in central Myanmar that might be displaced by a copper mine.

To counter the uproar, President Thein Sein appointed Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi to lead an official investigation into the mine and the episode.

The hostile reception, a stark contrast to the adoring crowds that greeted her after her release from house arrest more than two years ago, underscores the rockiness of her transition from international symbol to elected official.

Frustration with her has been building from groups in the country who say she often sides with the establishment, including the powerful military, that held her for most of two decades and brutalized the country for five.

"All we had to eat was boiled rice when we voted for you," said Daw Pu, a farmer who confronted Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday. "But you are not standing with us anymore."

Significant in a country where ethnicity normally carries major weight, the villagers were from her own ethnic group, the majority Burman.

They have been protesting the expansion of the mine, which would force them off their land. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to the area in an attempt to convince the farmers to cease their protests and make way for the mine, which is partly owned by the Myanmar military.

Aung Zaw, the editor of the widely-read Burmese online news journal Irrawaddy, said that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi's stance on the copper mine signaled "a new era in Burmese politics."

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, he wrote, "can no longer count on Burma's people to believe her when she says that everything she does is in their best interests."

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi remains widely admired in the country, formerly known as Burma, for her stubborn campaign against military rule and her sacrifices during her years of house arrest. But in recent months she has alienated some supporters with public expressions of admiration for the military and silence on the army's shelling and airstrikes against the Kachin ethnic minority group.

The dispute over the copper mine centers on an unresolved but crucial question for the country: how to handle the legacy of five decades of military dictatorship.

No one has been held accountable for the sins of the past: the bloody crackdowns on protesters, the jailing of dissidents and the ruinous economic management by the military, including many business deals signed in secrecy.

The mine is run by a joint venture, formed in 2010, between the Myanmar military and a subsidiary of a Chinese arms manufacturer. Its expansion will bury surrounding villages and rice paddies with mine tailings.

The standoff over the mine has attracted national attention partly because it has come to symbolize widespread land seizures in Myanmar. The issue, a major problem for the civilian government of President Thein Sein, pits destitute farmers against powerful interests, including the military and their favored businessmen.

An attempt in November by the government to disperse protesters from the mine, which is outside the central city of Monywa, backfired when dozens of Buddhist monks, revered in this country, were severely burned by white phosphorus smoke grenades deployed by the police. The devices are normally reserved for warfare, not riot control.

The news media in Myanmar was filled with images of the monks' injuries.

To counter the uproar, President Thein Sein appointed Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi to lead an official investigation into the mine and the episode.

Her findings were released Tuesday. Infuriating the villagers, the report did not hold anyone responsible for using the phosphorus devices but recommended better training for riot control. It said that the copper mine expansion should proceed, but that the joint venture company should offer more compensation.

Before she left the area on Thursday, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was asked by reporters to comment on the hostile reaction she received.

"I have never done anything just for popularity," she said. "Sometimes politicians have to do things that people dislike."

Wai Moe contributed reporting from Monywa, Myanmar.


Suu Kyi tries to appease protesters in Monywa

Associated French Press (AFP)

13 March 2013

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi urged protesters Wednesday to accept a controversial Chinese-backed mine that was the scene of a violent crackdown last year, or risk hurting the economy.

The Nobel laureate dismayed some villagers living near the copper mine in Monywa, northern Myanmar, with her warning that nearby communities and the wider economy would suffer if the controversial project is abandoned.

"If we stop this project, it will not benefit local people or the country," Suu Kyi said during a visit to the area.

"The other country [China] might think that our country cannot be trusted on the economy," she added. "We have to get along with the neighbouring country whether we like it or not."

Speaking to about 500 people at a second village, Suu Kyi urged those unhappy with her to "protest at my house".

The issue has left Suu Kyi with the awkward balancing act of reaching out to downtrodden local people while fulfilling her new role as a parliamentarian.

She failed to appease the villagers and many spoke disparagingly about her lack of support for their action, in particular after November's brutal crackdown, which carried echoes of the former junta's response to dissent.

"We have lost respect for Daw (Aunt) Suu ... although we used to love her very much," villager Zaw Naing told AFP, accusing the opposition leader of failing "to consider local people".

An estimated 3,000 protesters-some carrying placards reading "Get out Wanbao"- on Wednesday marched on the headquarters of the Chinese firm which jointly owns the mine.

A parliamentary report overseen by Suu Kyi-released on Tuesday-said police used phosphorus against demonstrators at the mine in November in the harshest crackdown on protesters since the end of military rule.

However, the probe into the clampdown, which left dozens wounded including monks, recommended the mine project should not be scrapped, despite conceding it only brought "slight" benefits to the nation.

The report was angrily rejected by locals who are worried about the environmental impact and land grabbing.

"We cannot accept the result of the investigation ... this Wanbao company has to close down," Zaw Naing told AFP, vowing further protests.

Another local man, Sai Kyaw Aye, said his fury was directed at the report and not Suu Kyi-although he accused her of making a "mistake" by failing to consult ordinary people.

Since decades of brutal junta rule ended two years ago, Myanmar has seen protests against land grabbing as disgruntled rural people test the boundaries of their freedom to demonstrate under a reform-minded government.

Chinese-backed projects to tap the nation's abundant natural resources have sparked particular resentment.

The Monywa mine dispute echoes fierce opposition to a Chinese-backed mega-dam that was suspended in September 2011 after a public outcry.

Many local residents want the mine-a joint venture between Chinese firm Wanbao and military-owned Myanmar Economic Holdings-to be shut down and several villages have opened protest camps nearby.


Wanbao Welcomes Inquiry Commission's Verdict

By Kyaw Phyo Tha

The Irrawaddy

13 March 2013

RANGOON - The Chinese mining company behind the controversial Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Division has welcomed the final report of a parliamentary commission that advises going ahead with the project despite continuing demands from local people for its complete shutdown.

In a press release signed by the company's managing director, Geng Yi, Myanmar Wanbao Mining Ltd, a subsidiary of Chinese state-owned arms manufacturer Norinco, said on Tuesday that it welcomes the decision of the report, and would heed its call to listen to the needs of the local community.

"Wanbao will continue contributing to the sustainable development of our local community and of Myanmar as a whole," the press release concludes.

Since last year, the mining project has sparked a public outcry from protesters who say that it has caused environmental destruction and resulted in forced relocation and illegal land confiscation.

Outrage over the project grew after more than 100 people, mostly Buddhist monks, were injured in a pre-dawn raid on a protest camp by local police on Nov. 29. Many of the victims of that attack suffered severe burns caused by incendiary devices, which the commission's report said contained phosphorus.

Burmese President Thein Sein formed an inquiry commission chaired by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the wake of the crackdown to probe the incident and assess whether or not the Letpadaung project should continue. The commission submitted its findings and recommendations to the president on Monday.

Chit Khin, a Monywa resident and the head of the campaign group Save Letpadaung Mountain Committee, said it rejected the commission's report. "We request a total shutdown of the project. We will do whatever it takes to help the Letpadaung residents until the project is closed completely," he said.

The Letpadaung mine is part of the company's Monywa copper mine project, which consists of four copper deposits at Sabe, Kyeesin and Letpadaung mountain in the Monywa region of Sagaing Division.

The mine is a joint venture between Wanbao and the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL), a Burmese military-owned conglomerate. Both parties signed production-sharing contracts in 2010 and 2011 in front of leaders of the two countries.

The UMEHL also issued an announcement on Tuesday saying that it would follow the commission's suggestions, which include compensating local people for the loss of their land.

According to Dong Yunfei, Wanbao's administrative manager, the company has so far invested more than US $600 million in the project.

"According to the contract, the Burmese government gets the lion's share of the profit: more than 17 percent. We get only 12. UMEHL gets around 13. They rest-more than 50 percent-goes to production costs. Wanbao has contributed 100 percent investment in the project," he told The Irrawaddy during a recent interview.

On Monday, Thein Sein formed a 15-member committee to implement the findings of the inquiry commission. The implementation committee is supervised by a President's Office minister, with directors from UMEHL and Wanbao as members.

Meanwhile, Suu Kyi is traveling to Monywa on Wednesday to personally explain the commission's findings to local people.


US Opposes Phosphorus Use by Burmese Police

The Irrawaddy

13 March 2013

The US government said it disapproves of Burmese police using smoke bombs containing phosphorus to control demonstrations. "We have opposed the use of phosphorus as a crowd control agent. And we have urged the government to ensure that its security forces exercise maximum restraint, respect due process under the law, and protect the right of freedom of assembly," said US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. She was reacting to questions about a Burmese parliamentary inquiry released on Tuesday, which confirmed that police had used the bombs during a Nov. 29 crackdown on protestors. About 100 protestors, who oppose a Chinese-backed copper mine, suffered serious burns in the incident.


Activists, Locals Reject Letpadaung Inquiry

By Lawi Weng and Thet Swe Aye

The Irrawaddy

12 March 2013

RANGOON-Activists and the victims of a brutal crackdown on a protest against a Chinese-backed copper mine have rejected the results of the newly-released parliamentary inquiry into the incident, as it failed to hold any officials responsible for the violence.

The protestors vowed to continue their campaign against the mine in northwestern Burma, despite the fact that the inquiry said that the project can continue.

In a Nov. 29 raid police fired incendiary devices into a protesters camp outside the Letpadaung mine in Sagaing Division, which caused severe burns among about 100 monks and villagers. It was the worst case of state-sponsored violence since reforms began under President Thein Sein in 2011.

The parliamentary inquiry chaired by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was highly anticipated as the mine has become a national flashpoint for communities, rights activists and environmental groups.

The ten-page report, published in state-run Burmese-language newspaperson Tuesday, said police had used smoke bombs containing phosphorus that could cause burns on persons in the vicinity of the igniting devices.

The commission however, failed to hold any officials accountable for the events. Instead it concludes that Burmese police require crowd-control training and it adds, "We want to suggest that the police should check the material that they will use and what its effects are, before an anti-riot crackdown." The commission also appears to make reference to the protesters, who included "some people who violated the rule of law."

Thein Than Oo of the Upper Burma Lawyers Network said in a reaction that the report had failed to properly investigate the Nov. 29 crackdown. "This commission result is not enough and we can't rely on them," he said, adding that many commission members were too close to the government to hold an independent inquiry.

"If the protesters violated the law, how about the riot police? They also violated the laws. The government should investigate both sides and mete out the punishments," said Thein Than Oo. His organization tested the smoke canisters and also found they contained white phosphorus in January.

The commissions' report acknowledges that the Letpadaung mine has environmental consequences and that farmers were forcibly evicted from their land to make way for the project. It advises the mining company to compensate the farmers, but concludes that the controversial mining activity can continue.

Commission chair Suu Kyi reportedly told reporters in Naypyidaw that she would travel to Letpadaung on Wednesday to discuss the report's findings with the affected local community.

Zavana, a senior Buddhist monk who was among the crackdown victims, said the report's findings were unacceptable to local farmers. "I will go and meet local people tomorrow here. Then, we will discuss what to do next. We will continue our protest," he said.

The monk added that Suu Kyi should "not close her eyes" to the suffering of the local people affected by the project.

Chit Khin, who heads campaign group Save Letpadaung Mountain Committee, said it rejected the commission's report. "We request a total shutdown of the project. Our committee we will do whatever it takes to help the Letpadaung residents, until the absolute shutdown of the project," he said.

The Letpadaung Copper Mine project is a joint venture between the Burmese military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL) and its Chinese partner, the Wanbao company, which is a subsidiary of state-owned arms manufacturer Norinco.

The company confiscated 7,800 acres (3,156 hectares) of land from farmers in 2010 for the project. Last year, local farmers began a protest against the land-grab and the environmental damage caused by the mine.

The protests were later supported by national human rights and environmental groups and gained popular support across the country, as the project is being viewed as benefiting only Burma's notorious military and Chinese investors.

President Thein Sein's spokesman Ye Htut said any investment project causes environmental and social impacts, adding that the commission's report advises that such impacts are minimized and weighed against the benefits.

"Most agree that this [inquiry report] is an acceptable result," he said. "If people don't accept the result, there are rules and regulations for them to protest peacefully... But when they come by force we have take some necessary measures."


Burma Police Used Phosphorus at Mine Protest, Official Report Confirms

By the Associated Press

12 March 2013

RANGOON - An eagerly awaited official report has confirmed that police in Burma used smoke bombs that contain phosphorus during a crackdown on anti-mine protesters last year that left 108 people with burns, mostly Buddhist monks. The report also recommended the controversial Chinese-backed project continue.

The report by an investigation commission appointed by President Thein Sein and chaired by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released Monday, more than three months after the incident at the Letpadaung copper mine in northwestern Burma. It was the biggest use of force against protesters in Burma since Thein Sein's reformist government took office in March 2011.

Protesters say the joint venture between China's Wan Bao mining company and a Burma military conglomerate causes environmental, social and health problems. They want it halted and are demanding punishment of those who hurt peaceful protesters.

The findings are likely to disappoint opponents of the project and could reignite demonstrations.

Authorities had said they used water cannon, tear gas and smoke grenades to break up the 11-day occupation of the mine last November, but protesters said burns were caused by incendiary devices and at the time they described "fire balls" being shot at them during the night-time raid on their encampment.

A separate, independent report released last month by a lawyers network and an international human rights group said police dispersed the protesters by using white phosphorous, an incendiary agent generally used in war to create smoke screens.

Monday's report did not specifically mention white phosphorus, saying only that smoke bombs containing phosphorous were used. The report said the smoke bombs do not generally create a flame but the phosphorus in them can sometimes burn flammable materials within an 8-meter radius.

Senior police told the commission that they used the same smoke bombs during monk-led protests in 2007, demonstrations known as Saffron revolution, and they didn't cause any burns.

The commission faulted the police force for failing to understand how the smoke bombs worked and it recommended police receive riot-control training.

Most disappointing for those who oppose the mine, the report said the project "should not be unilaterally stopped."

While acknowledging the mine lacked strong environmental protection measures and would not create more jobs for local people, the report said that scrapping the mine could create tension with China and could discourage badly needed future foreign investment.

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