Villagers opposed to the Chinese-backed Letpadaung copper mine in northern Myanmar fear a harsh government crackdown after next week’s deadline for them to accept financial compensation for giving up their land for the project, activists said.
Some 400 residents from 10 villages in the Letpadaung area in Sagaing region marched against the project on Wednesday ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline and resumption of operations next month.
Activists said the fresh march was prompted by a recent police warning that after the deadline those who continue to farm land acquired for the project will face arrest.
Local authorities are pressuring villagers to accept the compensation offers, but some 60 percent are holding out, according to activists, prompting fears of a confrontation with police as residents plan further protests.
Activist Kaung Myat Hlaing said that tensions were running high in the area ahead of the deadline, with 70 to 80 security forces and plainclothes police patrolling the villages daily.
“People are worried and they can’t even sleep well,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “They are guarding their villages at night by themselves.”
“If they don’t solve this problem through negotiation, there will be bloody violence.”
A brutal police crackdown on protests against the mine last November provoked a national outcry and prompted a government probe that set in motion a revised plan for the mine including higher compensation for local residents.
Min Min, a resident of Ton village who took part in Wednesday’s demonstration, said villagers want a halt to the project because they are dissatisfied with the level of transparency from a committee that is tasked with implementing the revised plan, including new compensation guidelines.
“We are marching and demanding today to stop the Letpadaung copper mine,” he told RFA.
“The Project Implementation Committee hasn’t let us know about the new deal transparently.”
Wrong names listed
Kyaw Myat Hlaing said the committee’s efforts to dole out the compensation have been riddled with problems, with some people faking ownership of land in order to take compensation in place of villagers who are refusing it.
Some 20 percent of villagers who are refusing compensation have found their names listed as having accepted the money even though they have not taken it and do not want to, he said.
“Some people who don’t own the land go and take the compensation. The village administrators help them get the compensation while the real landowners don’t know about it,” he said.
When the real residents discover the problem and complain to the Project Implementation Committee, the staff does not take the names off the list of those who have accepted compensation, he said.
Instead, the staff tries to rectify the problem by giving the real residents the money, but the residents return it, he said.
“The real owners go and pay back the compensation to the Project Implementation Committee, since what they want is just to be able to work their land,” he said.
Other residents, he said, have been pressured to accept the money by staff from the Project Implementation Committee’s local communications office, which holds weekly meetings with local residents.
Threatened with arrest
He said police had recently told residents that they should accept the compensation and that those who refuse and continue to farm the land after the deadline will face arrest.
“A police officer told local people a few days ago to accept the compensation and that those who continue working on their lands without accepting it must be arrested and have [legal] action taken against them.”
“People got angry because of his words and they applied to protest.”
Activists have said those who do accept the compensation are those whose land has already become unusable because of damage from mining activities.
Compensation money that is not distributed by the Sept. 30 deadline will be put in a fund to be used for local development, local authorities have said.
Residents have protested since 2012 after the start of an expansion of the mine, which was begun under Myanmar’s former military junta regime, saying their land was confiscated illegally.
They have also demanded that action be taken against security forces responsible for the use of phosphorous in the November crackdown, as well as against those who “violently” raided protesters at a local monastery in Zeetaw village last month.
Earlier this year, a government commission headed by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi tasked with probing the project recommended that it be allowed to continue despite conceding it brought only “slight” benefits to the nation.
The project contract was updated in July to give the Myanmar government 51 percent of the mine’s revenues in an apparent bid to assuage public anger by giving the nation a share of the profits.
Under the revised deal, Chinese company Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper Limited, which operates the mine, is now entitled to 30 percent of the revenue and the Myanmar military-backed Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEHL) to 19 percent.
The new terms also stipulate that two percent of net profits from the project go toward corporate social responsibility with a focus on immediate communities.