Myanmar farmers protest at Chinese copper mine

Protests have been taking place at Letpadaung for years. Source: Flickr

Hundreds of villagers in Myanmar protested against the resumption of operations at a Chinese-backed copper mine.

The protests have continued for almost a week when some people broke through police barriers at the mine, operated by Myanmar Wanbao, a subsidiary of a Chinese weapons maker.

It is one of the first tests of the new government’s ability to deal with public protests.

Wanbao manages the controversial mine in a joint venture with a conglomerate controlled by the military, Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. Villagers say their land was seized without compensation to expand the mine. Wanbao, however, said it offered the farmers money, but they refused to accept it.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China and Myanmar were traditional friends whose cooperation was in the interests of both countries.

“The Chinese government has consistently demanded that Chinese companies investing abroad respect the laws and rules of the host nation, and fulfil their responsibility and obligation to society, including paying attention to protecting the environment,” Lu told the media in Beijing.

“China is willing to work hard with Myanmar to properly implement these mutually beneficial cooperation projects, to promote local socio-economic development, to better benefit both countries and their peoples,” Lu said.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar last month, where he said China was confident it could resolve issues with Nay Pyi Taw through friendly talks, amid Chinese pressure to resume a stalled US$3.6-billion dam project.

After big protests in 2012 and 2013 against the mine, riot police raided a protest camp injuring more than 100 people. Aung San Suu Kyi, then leader of the opposition and chair of a parliamentary legal committee, led an inquiry that recommended compensating the residents and minimising environmental damage.

The inquiry commission called for more transparency in Wanbao’s land appropriation process and for police riot-control training in the wake of a violent raid on protesters in 2012.

Suu Kyi accused the government of then President Thein Sein of ignoring the commission’s recommendations to improve conditions at the mine, saying these had caused clashes in December 2014 between police and farmers trying to stop Wanbao employees from fencing off land for the site. The incident left one farmer dead and dozens injured.

Work at the mine, about 100km west of Mandalay in Sagaing Region, was suspended after the protests until Wanbao demonstrated it had a social and environmental conscience.

In 2012 riot police threw white phosphorus grenades at protesters, causing serious burns on scores of residents and in 2014 a protester was shot dead. No one was prosecuted for the killing but numerous protesters were imprisoned for months for demanding justice for the victim.