Protests in Monywa, Myanmar against the expansion of a partially Chinese-owned copper mine turned violent when riot police cracked down on protesters, injuring dozens. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been sent to act as a mediator between company officials and protesters, who are opposed to the environmental impact of the mine expansion as well as government takeover of their land. AP reports:
Riot police used water cannons, tear gas and smoke bombs to break up the 11-day occupation of the Letpadaung copper mine, wounding dozens of villagers and Buddhist monks early Thursday. The move risks becoming a public relations and political fiasco for Thein Sein’s government, which has touted Myanmar’s transition to democracy after almost five decades of repressive military rule.
In a visit scheduled before the crackdown, Suu Kyi met Thursday with company officials and protesters and was scheduled to meet with local officials and others Friday.
The mine is jointly operated by a Chinese company and a holding company controlled by Myanmar’s military, and activists say as the project expands, villagers have been forced from their land with little compensation.
Through state television, the government initially acknowledged using the riot-control measures but denied using excessive force against the protesters. In an unusual move, it later retracted the statement without explanation.
Protests against the expansion have been ongoing since June. Irrawaddy reports that the government has persisted with plans for the mine out of fear of China. The mine is jointly owned by China’s Wangbao Mining Copper Ltd. and the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd:
During discussions with Thwe Thwe Win, a protester who has demanded the complete shutdown of the project, Aung Min [Minister of the President’s Office] said the deal was signed between the former military government and a Chinese company and so ceasing operations would entail a fortune in compensation.
“If China asks for compensation, even the Myitsone Dam shutdown would cost US $3 billion,” he said. “But China still hasn’t said a word about it. We are afraid of China.”
Aung Min added that Burma should be grateful to China for its aid in 1988 when the Southeast Asian nation faced a food crisis due to nationwide unrest. He added that in the 1980s the former Chinese President Deng Xiaoping cut off support to the Communist Party of Burma that weakened the Marxist insurgency against the central government.
“So we don’t dare to have a row with China!” said Aung Min. “If they feel annoyed with the shutdown of their projects and resume their support to the communists, the economy in border areas would backslide. So you’d better think seriously.”
For its part, Global Times said in an editorial that the protests were instigated by foreign forces, while also blaming Myanmar’s democratic reforms:
It will be a lose-lose situation for China and Myanmar if the project is halted. Only third parties, including some Western forces, will be glad to see this result.
Protesters first asked for more compensation, but now want to stop this project and are demanding that the Chinese company leave. There are definitely some Westerners and NGOs instigating these protesters. More importantly, however, Myanmar’s political climate has changed and the government cannot control public opinion.
Similarly, some big projects have been halted due to public protests in Shifang, Qidong, and Ningbo in China. Companies cannot get their initial investment back. However, in Myanmar, people have much less ability to identify information than Chinese people.
Democracy promises to give everyone in the world equal rights, but this is only an illusion. Development is the last word, as Deng Xiaoping asserted more than 20 years ago. It is a value that applies to everyone in the world.
The Chinese embassy in Yangon issued a statement which said:
Issues such as relocation, compensation, environmental protection and profit sharing regarding this project were jointly settled through negotiations by the two sides and meet Myanmar’s laws and regulations.
Democratic Voice of Burma has footage of the protests:
Read more about the shifting dynamics of the Myanmar-China relationship as the former launches substantial political reforms.