Farmers opposed to a controversial Chinese-backed copper mining project in Sagaing Division said they will continue their protests against the project despite a visit two days ago by a senior government minister.
President’s Office Minister Hla Htun, who heads a committee responsible for implementing a report on the controversial Letpadaung copper mine commissioned by President Thein Sein earlier this year, met around 100 villagers in Salingyi Township, near Monywa, on Tuesday.
“Minister U Hla Htun said he will respond to our demands after he talks to the relevant ministry,” said Sandar, a protester from the village of Tone who was among those who attended the meeting.
But the minister’s visit has done little to ease tensions over the project, as around 300 protesters and an equal number of armed security officers hired by China’s state-owned Wanbao Mining Company confronted each other on Thursday.
The current standoff centers on fields that were confiscated from the farmers and are now fenced in to prevent them entering to harvest their crops.
“The police warned us that if we touch the fence, they will shoot us,” said Sandar. “But we women protesters were so sad about losing our crops, which they are destroying with bulldozers, that we touched the fence, anyway.”
Aung Than Oo, a farmer from Hsetae village, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that “the protests will continue until they stop fencing.”
He added that the security officers were “fully armed” and had used slingshots to try to chase them away, injuring at least one of the protesters.
The protesters say they want their farmland returned to them and for the government to stop forcing local villagers to relocate. They also expressed concern about the fate of a religious site associated with the revered Buddhist monk Ledi Sayadaw, who died 90 years ago. The site is within the area now being fenced off.
Wanbao started building the fence around a 400-acre area on Oct. 8 as a means of preventing farmers from reclaiming land that had been taken from them. Many of the farmers had returned to the fields to plant crops in defiance of government orders.
“My sesame crop was completely destroyed when they started building the fence,” complained Aung Than Oo, who also demanded compensation for his lost crops.
Despite the still-strong opposition to the Letpadaung mine, Hla Tun reportedly told the protesters on Tuesday that the project would go ahead regardless, and that they should just accept the compensation that they have been offered.