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Myanmar protesters defy orders end to mine rally

  • Article by: YADANA HTUN
  • Associated Press
  • November 28, 2012 - 3:03 AM

MONYWA, Myanmar - Hundreds of Buddhist monks and villagers occupying a copper mine in northwestern Myanmar defied a government order to leave by Wednesday, saying they will stay until the project is halted.

The protesters, who have set up six camps at the site, say the Letpadaung mine near the town of Monywa is causing environmental, social and health problems.

The protest is the latest major example of increased activism by citizens since an elected government took over last year following almost five decades of repressive military rule.

But it is also clearly an irritant to Myanmar's reform-minded government, which warned it could deter badly needed foreign investment in the country.

The mine is a joint venture between a Chinese firm and a company controlled by Myanmar's military. China is a major investor and strategic ally of Myanmar, and the backing of the military is crucial to government stability.

State television broadcast an announcement Tuesday night that ordered protesters to cease their occupation of the mine by midnight that day or face legal action. It said operations at the mine had been halted since Nov. 18, after protesters occupied the area.

There had been nearly 1,000 protesters at the mine, and some left after the announcement, said Win Kyawt Hmu, a protester. The numbers remaining were hard to judge, but appeared to include at least 100 Buddhist monks.

"We strongly condemn last night's order from the Home Ministry," said Thwe Thwe Win, one of the protest leaders. "We will not stop our protest until our demands are met."

Asked if they were concerned about being arrested, she said: "We will face difficulties, but we will continue our protest."

Protesters say they want the mining project "to be totally halted" and have asked that any government concessions on the issue be made publicly in front of the media.

There was no immediate reaction from authorities.

The main protest encampment near the offices of the Chinese mining partner, Wan Bao Co., looked well-established Wednesday, with villagers cooking fried noodles and sticky rice to share with more than 100 Buddhist monks staying in makeshift shelters.

Buddhist monks in Myanmar have traditionally been closely involved in social protests.

The company has put up signboards extolling its projects, with slogans such as "Responsible mining, sustainable growth," "More job opportunities, better living standard," and "Friendship, trust and harmonious community."

In counterpoint, the protesters have posted handwritten signs and placards saying "Our mountain, do not invade it," "Do not invade farmland," "Save the Letpaduang" — referring to the mountain at the hub of the mine — and "Stop UMEHL," the initials of the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited, the military partner in the mining venture. The project covers 3,184 hectares (7,868 acres) of land.

A monk who said he joined the protest a month ago said the announcement ordering them to leave was insulting because it was issued only four hours ahead of the deadline.

"We came from far away and they shouldn't kick us out like animals. They shouldn't do this to monks," said Withaithtadama, 21, from Mandalay. "We already told them that we want to see the project stop. ... Until they agree with what we ask, we will keep on protesting."

He said the protesters insist on a comprehensive environmental impact assessment before any work is resumed at the mine.

Political and economic liberalization under President Thein Sein has won praise from Western governments, which have eased sanctions imposed on the previous military government because of its poor record on human and civil rights.

His government's surprise suspension last year of a Chinese-backed hydroelectric project, in response to similar concerns about social and economic consequences, was seen as a significant indicator of its commitment to democratic reform.

But Thein Sein's ministers have warned about offending Myanmar's big neighbor to the north.

President's Office Minister Aung Min told villagers at a recent meeting in Monywa that he would submit their demands to the president, but also told them to be careful not to upset China.

Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Wai Lwin gave an even stronger defense of the mining project in response to a question in Parliament. He warned that if the protest succeeded in stopping it, it would discourage further foreign investment in Myanmar.

"Under the previous military government, the development of our country lagged 20 years behind because of sanctions," he said, referring to Western measures barring aid and investment to Myanmar under the previous military regime. "At present, when the country is becoming democratic and about to enjoy catching up in technology, we are facing protests that could hamper development."

He also defended the involvement in the project of the army's holding company, saying it was established with the aim of helping the welfare of disabled soldiers, retired soldiers and those still in active service. The Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. is one of two major conglomerates operated by the military.

© 2014 Star Tribune