MANDALAY — Farmers from the Letpadaung copper mining area in Sagaing Division say they will soon begin to sow crops on their confiscated lands, having received approval from local authorities after simmering tensions boiled over this week and resulted in the kidnapping of two Chinese workers from the mine.
The farmers said they had reached an agreement with a Yinmabin District administrative officer to work on some of their seized land after local villagers agreed to free the two Chinese nationals, whom they had detained on Sunday. The deal came after negotiations on Monday, when the two men were released after being held for more than 30 hours by villagers angry over land conflicts involving Letpadaung and its operator, the Chinese firm Wanbao.
“We are now preparing for work as we reached an agreement to return to farm on our confiscated lands, which we did not take compensation for, located near and inside the fences of the mining company,” said Aung Myint Thein, a local farmer from the village of Zee Taw.
The farmers said part of the agreement with local officials was an assurance that Wanbao would not further expand buildings or fencing around the mining site, and would allow local farmers to enter areas recently fenced in to cultivate confiscated lands that are not within the main project area.
However, some worry that unrest may again flare up, because Wanbao representatives were not present for Monday’s negotiations and the company had not yet indicated that it would go along with the deal brokered by local officials.
“We heard from a source inside the company that they did not agree to what we demanded. In fact, no responsible person from the mining company attended the negotiation talks,” said Yee Win, from the village of Hse Te.
“As we understand it, the terms of our demands will be met. If they break their promise, we’re afraid there will be more unrest,” she added.
A compensation package for confiscated lands has yet to be arranged and senior Wanbao officials responsible for negotiating the matter have yet to meet with affected locals, the farmers say, despite several requests from the villagers to do so.
Meanwhile, five residents of Hse Te village were told at Monday’s negotiations that they would face charges for allegedly kidnapping the two Chinese Wanbao employees.
“We were told by their lawyer that me and another four people will have to face the lawsuit for kidnapping. But we have received no informing letter or call from the authorities yet,” said Win Win Htay, one of the accused, adding that he rejected the characterization of their actions as constituting a kidnapping.
The ordeal began after the Chinese Wanbao employees were spotted carrying out survey works on recently seized lands, with villagers believing the aim of the company was to later fence in the area. Local residents said they had been led to believe that further fencing of confiscated lands would not proceed and consequently brought the two men, along with a Burmese Wanbao employee, to Hse Te village. The Burmese national was released later the same day.
“Actually, the villagers just brought them and let us know they [the Wanbao workers] were here,” Win Win Htay claimed. “We understood that the case might be construed as a kidnapping if we had kept them for a long time. That’s why we asked them [the workers] to make a call to the most responsible person from their mining company to come, since they were here. But they took such a long time and didn’t even show up. This is them [Wanbao] wanting the situation to be turned on its head.”
The accused villagers said responsibility for what happened to the two Chinese workers rested with the whole village, not only the five men who were told they would face charges.
“These five people are not the ones who brought in those two Chinese. They just took the lead during the negotiations, on behalf of all of us. So all of us, young and old, will have to face the charges,” said U Myint, who is also from Hse Te village.
“We have no problem facing the law for what we’ve done,” he added. “But will they take the same responsibility for our confiscated lands, for the destroyed environment and religious buildings, and for the monks who were injured by the incendiary devices? Recently, they raided Zedaw village monastery, on Monday night, firing several shots of teargas grenades, as though it was the hideout of bandits. Will they take full responsibility for these things?”
State-owned media have reported that local authorities are accusing villagers of damaging police vehicles in a clash that took place on Sunday night as law enforcement tried to enter the village to rescue the kidnapped Chinese workers.
The reports said that two policemen were injured, and 12 motorbikes and five police vehicles were damaged, as the villagers threw stones and flaming objects at the advancing police.
The villagers refute this account of events, saying they were defending themselves and merely expelling objects that had caught fire after teargas grenades were thrown into the Zedaw village monastery, in order to prevent the compound from being set alight.
“Villagers threw the stones to drive off the police, who were trying to destroy the monastery. The vehicles were in the middle of the villagers and police so they were sure to be hit by the stones. If not, the police would have shot the villagers and the monastery would probably have been destroyed,” Win Win Htay said.
The Letpadaung mine has long been beset by local residents’ complaints—and attendant protests—ranging from claims of the project’s environmental impact to forced evictions to make way for its expansion.
“They are just trying to create a bad image of the villagers so that they can proceed with the project [Letpadaung] without any obstacles,” Win Win Htay said. “The authorities just want to protect their projects and investors, but not the farmers and the locals who have suffered from those projects. We lost everything—our homes, our lands, our future—and no one has tried put themselves in our shoes.”