RANGOON — At least 150 rights activists and local residents are urging authorities in northwest Burma to allow them to visit a historic Buddhist pagoda that was allegedly damaged by a blast at the Letpadaung copper mine project last week.
Amid rumors that the pagoda was damaged in a blast last Thursday, protests have been ongoing near the offices of Chinese mining company Wanbao.
The Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Division is highly controversial among local residents. In November last year, protests led by Buddhist monks opposed to the project’s potential environmental and social impact on local communities were violently stopped by the police, with dozens of people injured.
“We heard the site of a pagoda and house were cracked by the mining blast,” Win Naing, a protester, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday. “We asked them to let us see the site. If we find that it was damaged, we will bring this information to the public and ask the government to take action.”
The protesters say they fear other religious buildings in the mining area could be at risk if operations at the mine proceed.
A Buddhist monk, U Vimala, said he would continue to protest until authorities allowed the group to visit the pagoda. “We are going to investigate the site damage,” he told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday. “Then we will ask for action against those who blasted the site. It is our holy place, with an ordination hall and temple.”
The Letpadaung mining project restarted in September, after operations were temporarily suspended following the crackdown on protesters last year.
With the resumption of mining activities, about 50 farmers and activists marched from Mandalay to Sagaing Division, calling for greater protection to preserve the ordination hall and temple that was established by an influential monk, Ledi Sayadaw.
The mining project is a joint venture between Wanbao and the Burmese government, which signed a new contract in July that gave the government a greater share of profits.
Wanbao pledged in the new contract to meet international environmental standards and to give jobs to local people, while also investing in education, health care and community development.
Burma’s deputy minister of religious affairs, Soe Win, said the project would affect local Buddhist sites during a press conference in Naypyidaw in July. “All pagodas at the mining site need to be relocated because it is not suitable to keep them in the mining area,” he told reporters. “We have already talked to other senior monks about this.”
However, U Vimala said monks would not agree to move the ordination hall and temple.
“We will not let them move this Buddhist site, not even one foot,” he said.