Myanmar protests reignited at controversial China-backed Letpadaung Copper Mine

HUNDREDS OF VILLAGERS in northwestern Myanmar’s Sagaing region have continued to rally against the resumption of operations at the Letpadaung copper project by a subsidiary of China-based Wanbao Mining in partnership with Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings. The large project has long come under fire by local farmers angered by the company’s land takeovers in the area and new protests could pose an early challenge to Aung San Suu Kyi’s new National League for Democracy-led government.

Police move in to stop protestors from disrupting workers erecting a fence on land confiscated for the Letpadaung copper mine, 23 Dec 2014. Photo: RFA

Police from Salingyi township, where China-managed Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper Limited's mine is located, arrested Ma Sanda and Mar Cho for leading about 200 farmers and other residents from area villages in a protest that began Wednesday,  4 May. 

“These two women and some other villagers were charged,” Sergeant Than Nyunt told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “We have to wait for orders from higher level officials as to what to do next with this case.”

The two were changed under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law and Article 147 of the penal code.  Rights groups say the two articles are commonly used to arrest activists for exercising their right to freedom of assembly.

Wanbao resumed operations, despite cries from protesters that it had ignored recommendations - including payments to farmers who lost crops to the project - made by a parliamentary commission led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi when she was an opposition lawmaker.

Farmers who lost crops in 2014 and 2015 during land confiscations for the mine project have demanded proper compensation from Wanbao. The company, however, has said that it has offered them money, but they refused to accept it.

The parliamentary inquiry commission on the Letpadaung project 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 at the mine site in 2012.

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

[Reported by San San Tin and Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin. Copyright © 1998-2016, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036.]

IN APRIL, A SPONSORED FILM charting the story of the mining project's "unlikely comeback tale" was released on-line by Sameh El-Shahat's China-I Limited, a risk advisory firm providing crisis management to Chinese institutions.

"A New Dawn" is described as the chronicles of Myanmar Wanbao, a Chinese mining company based in Myanmar's mineral rich Sagaing province, and the people of its local community, "caught in the political change facing the country. Pitted against each other by factors outside their control, they learned to move away from crisis to cooperation. This is their story."

"A New Dawn" is also said to mark the first time a major Chinese company had allowed a film crew inside to document their journey, and also the first time a Chinese company had "sought help from a British company, in the form of China-I."