The mine is one of several mega projects involving Chinese state-owned investors that were approved by the former junta shortly before it initiated a democratic transition to a quasi-civilian government in 2011. The Letpadaung mine, much like the Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River, is deeply unpopular with the Myanmar public who view it as benefitting only the army and Chinese firms.
There has been widespread support for local communities and there was nationwide outrage when, in November 2012, a camp of protesting villagers and Buddhist monks was attacked by police forces who fired phosphorous-containing grenades at them, causing severe burns among dozens of protestors.
I went with Daw Thawe Thawe Win to visit U Aung Myint Htwe, 37, a monk who leads a monastery in Shwe Hlay village. He described the incident and explained that protesters set up camp at the facility’s gates, but were told at 2:45 AM to go home. He described how at 3:15 AM, when the protesters had not vacated the entryway, police cornered them and sprayed a water cannon then lobbed burning white phosphorous grenades among them. The clash injured more than 100, he said. Daw Thawe Thawe Win’s younger sister, Phyu Phyu Win was left with permanent facial scars.
The incident was later investigated by a high-level government inquiry commission chaired by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. There were no legal repercussions for officers who ordered the violence, but the mining deal was amended and a greater share of project revenues was reserved for state coffers. The Chinese firm promised to work to resolve local complaints and improve compensation, but villagers have continued to protest. Authorities have continued to use heavy force to repress dissent.
No rule of law
In December 2014, a group of women protesting against the mine were met by armed police, who opened fire. Daw Khin Win, a 56-year-old widow, was fatally shot in the head.
Daw Thawe Thawe Win brought me to the police hearing to meet the family members who were seeking justice for Daw Khin Win. Upon entering the police station I was thoroughly questioned and had to provide passport and visa information to authorities at every turn; the special branch police kept their camera phones pointed in my direction.
Relatives of the victim have filed a murder complaint with the police who opened an investigation earlier this year, but little has happened in the case since. The situation underlines the absence of rule of law in Myanmar in cases where well-connected companies operate with support of authorities to exploit natural resources at the expense of local communities.
Since taking up activism against the project, Daw Thawe Thawe Win has had the opportunity to attend international conferences in Thailand and Indonesia on land rights, which have emboldened her in leading and educating her community. She now helps negotiate fair rates for private land purchases in her village and examines court cases and police hearings regarding attacks on citizens by security forces.
It is not only the farmers who have been left worse off because of the mine. Groups of artisanal miners who used to scour the edges of the site for copper have also seen their livelihoods decline after their access was blocked when the Chinese company took control of the project site.
Artisanal miners lose income
About 30 minutes outside of Monywa, at Kankone village, small-scale miners who once numbered more than 1,000 must now illegally enter the Letpadaung property in order to collect copper-rich soil. Fear is ever-present in the village - fear of not earning enough money to survive the coming months or fear of being arrested for trespassing. Currently, miners say they can make up to $100 per family every 20 days.
Several residents of Kankone took me on a hike up to the top of a nearby mountain which they visit to gather stones. Young children held my hands, helping me to navigate the unclear path. Suddenly, I was pushed into a cluster of bushes and told to hide while my translator and other companions hurried down the mountain. A truck full of Wanbao mining personnel drove past to survey the area. Had my translator or I been caught the entire community may have faced the consequences, they told me later.
With farms lost and productivity of the lands surrounding Letpadaung diminishing due to pollution the livelihoods of the villagers have become increasingly unstable. For example, the number of artisanal miners in Kankone – who used to enjoy unrestricted access to nearby mineral deposits – has dwindled to a mere 40 in recent years. What lies in store for the communities living near the mine remains uncertain, while injustice, insecurity, and poverty continues to mark their lives.