A government announcement stating that a Buddhist pagoda at the site of the Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Division will have to be moved was met with defiance by local villagers on Thursday, and the decision risks reigniting protests against the controversial project.
Government mouthpiece The New Light of Myanmar reported that officials had consulted senior monks at national and Sagaing Division level Sangha committees and received support to move the buildings to a site near Kyaw village in Salingyi Township.
Hla Tun, a minister from the President’s Office who chairs the committee tasked with implementing the recommendations of last year’s Letpadaung Investigation Commission report, said the buildings would have to be moved because “these religious buildings are located in the heart of the project area where massive amounts of copper are located.”
He said the buildings would not be harmed in the process, although he provided no details on how authorities planned to move the buildings. Hla Tun added that there was no evidence for the claims by local monks that the pagoda had been a religious site since the time of Burma’s mid-18th century King Mindon.
The state media reported that 1.4 acres of land would be reserved for the pagoda and ordination hall at the new site.
In early November, a blast at the Letpadaung mine reportedly caused cracks in the walls of the Taungy Pagoda and its ordination hall, which were established by a monk Letti Sayadaw, who was an influential spiritual leader several decades ago.
The incident angered local villagers who strongly oppose the huge, Chinese-backed mine, and hundreds gathered to resume protests. In late 2012, the area saw widespread protests against the mine, which had polluted local water sources and confiscated more than 3,000 hectares of land from hundreds of local farmers.
On Thursday, local villagers and monks said they were not consulted about the government’s decision to move their pagoda and ordination hall and they vowed to oppose the plan.
“We were not invited to the event and it does not reflect the desire of the local monks who value this religious heritage,” said Aloka, an abbot from a monastery of Zeedaw, one several villages where lands were confiscated for the mining project.
“We are saddened by the agreements and words of the senior abbots as they do not wish to maintain the religious heritage, but destroy it with their own hands,” he said.
“There is a lot of proof of the history of the ordination hall, of course, but we also have to remember the misfortune which those who will destroy it will experience,” the abbot said, referring to a widespread Buddhist belief that moving or damaging a religious building, especially an ordination hall, will bring misfortune.
Ko Htoo, from Kyaw village, said the local community was angered by the government’s plans for the pagoda, adding that they would continue to resist the plan at all costs.
“The decision of the authorities and the senior abbots are not our desire. We oppose this decision and will continue our complaints. We do not want our religious building to face a bad omen,” he said. “We have decided to do everything we can to stop this.”
A parliamentary committee led by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi reviewed the controversial project in early 2013 and said it should continue if the company properly addressed the mine’s social and environmental impacts.
In July 2013, a new contract agreement was signed between Wanbao, military-owned conglomerate UMEHL and the government, which stipulates that Wanboa and UMEHL will receive 49 percent of the profits, while Burma’s government gains 51 percent. The deal represents a huge increase in government revenues.
The new contract also states that the project will allocate US $1 million for corporate social responsibility and $2 million for environmental preservation annually, in addition to increasing compensation to affected farmers.
Local villagers, however, continue to feel that the huge mine is negatively affecting their livelihoods and complain they have not received adequate compensation yet. They believe that the damage to the pagoda is the latest sign that the firm is neglecting their demands.