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.