Thu 27 Sep 2012
Filed under: Business / Trade,Inside Burma,News
Wethmay — They were trailed by plainclothes police officers and called “cows” by government officials. They spent four nights in prison until a public outcry prompted their release.
The copper mine is run by the powerful Myanmar military and its partner, a subsidiary of a Chinese arms manufacturer.
Aye Net and Thwe Thwe Win, the daughters of farmers whose education stopped at primary school, have rocketed to national prominence in Myanmar for their defiance of a copper mining project run by the powerful Myanmar military and its partner, a subsidiary of a Chinese arms manufacturer.
“Whatever pressure they put on us, we won’t give up,” Ms. Thwe Thwe Win said in an interview in her village on the edge of the copper mine. “I want them to shut this project down completely.”
Myanmar’s new civilian government, led by President Thein Sein, is moving swiftly toward a less dictatorial society, releasing hundreds of political prisoners and abolishing media censorship. But those changes are a world away from the everyday realities of the impoverished countryside, where two-thirds of the population live. In the shadow of the massive copper mine in Wethmay, the authorities are following the old playbook of repression and harassment.
Wethmay is one of two dozen villages affected by the mine’s planned expansion. In December, the authorities tried to force inhabitants to move by attacking the local monastery with hammers, carting away Buddhist statues and removing all the furniture and equipment from the primary school. These and other incidents prompted a series of protests and clashes with the police, some of the largest demonstrations in Myanmar since the country’s civilian government came to power last year.
The police have been unbending. U Tint Aung, the chief of police of Monywa, the city where the two women were jailed, lashed out during an interview by telephone when asked why the women were being followed.
“Why should you care?” Mr. Tint Aung barked into the phone. “So what if we follow them?”
The authorities also appear eager to keep foreign eyes away. During a recent two-day visit, a reporter was constantly trailed by men on motorcycles, detained by the immigration police for an hour and told not to return to the area. His interpreter was threatened with arrest.
The case has been widely reported in privately owned publications in Myanmar, a measure of the country’s newfound freedoms. But the government has sought to curtail reporting of some its aspects. In March, a private weekly newspaper in Myanmar, The Voice , was sued by the Ministry of Mines after citing a report by the country’s auditor general that pointed to corruption in the sale of a stake in the project to the Chinese company.
At the heart of the case are environmental concerns — opposition to the copper mine is being championed by environmental groups that are concerned that surrounding farmlands will be contaminated by runoff from the mine — and more broadly the issue of land seizures.
Land grabs are a longstanding problem in Myanmar, and activists fear they may increase in the coming years in the rush to develop the country. Despite two laws passed last month that seek to clarify the land rights of farmers and policies governing vacant land, Parliament and opposition party offices have been flooded with complaints. A Land Investigation Committee, recently set up by Parliament, began traveling this week to several spots in the country to investigate reports of land seizures.
“There has been a failure to bring justice to farmers during the liberalization period — they are still marginalized,” said Tun Lin Oo, a co-founder of the Yangon School of Political Science, an organization that researches land rights, among other issues.
The copper mine controversy appears to have resonated in Myanmar because of the strong-arm tactics used against Ms. Aye Net, 34, and Ms. Thwe Thwe Win, 29. The two women are portrayed in weekly news magazines as being locked in a David-and-Goliath struggle, two unusually courageous villagers up against a constellation of powerful forces, including the military.
“The struggle made them into iron ladies,” said Ant Maung, a celebrated poet who lives in Monywa. “This is life or death for them — they will defend it at the cost of everything.”
Mr. Ant Maung calls the case “a good test for the democratization process” in Myanmar.
“Five years ago this would have been impossible — such a movement would have been cruelly crushed,” he said.
The troubles here began two years ago, when the government offered new housing and compensation equal to three months of annual income to villagers who agreed to move. Villagers complained to the authorities that the new housing was shabby and that they would lose their fields — and thus their ability to make a living. When only a handful of villagers took up the offer, the authorities called a meeting and told villagers that they must leave or be evicted.
“They shouted at us and called us animals,” Ms. Thwe Thwe Win said.
According to her account, the authorities tried to end the meeting, but she interjected.
“I said, ‘Now it’s my turn,”’ said Ms. Thwe Thwe Win, who dropped out of school when she was 12 years old and spent her childhood foraging for mushrooms and plants in the hills where the copper mine now operates. “I pointed my finger at the governor, ‘You are not a gentleman. Don’t call me again to this kind of discussion.”’
The governor, who has since been replaced, could not be reached for comment.
Villagers say they are even more determined to stay in their villages after seeing the relocation area, a collection of shoddily built houses in a treeless field.
Like the controversy over the Myitsone hydroelectric dam, another Chinese project that was suspended last year after a popular outcry, the case of the copper mine has undertones of anti-Chinese sentiment commonly heard in Myanmar. Two years ago, mining operations were taken over by a subsidiary of a Chinese arms and explosives manufacturer, Norinco , after a Canadian company, Ivanhoe, pulled out of the project. The mine is now jointly owned by the Chinese company and the business arm of the Myanmar military known as the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings.
Tempers flared in June when three Chinese employees of the mining company made rude gestures toward villagers as a local employee rolled a large rock toward them from atop a pile of mining debris. The villagers from Wethmay, which means “sleepy pig” in Burmese, were roused into action and began the series of protests.
Ms. Aye Net and Ms. Thwe Thwe Win were arrested earlier this month and released on Sept. 14 after the national news media covered their case. Prominent former political prisoners also traveled here to help negotiate their release.
Geng Yi, managing director of Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper, the company that operates the mine, denied in an e-mail that his employees had made rude gestures or rolled a rock toward them and said the company wanted “to get along with the local community harmoniously by communicating, understanding and supporting each other.”
The mine, he said, “can generate thousands of jobs and contribute to the development of the surrounding area.” The company has 2,000 local employees, a number that he said could double “in the near future.”
For now, the government appears to have put the plan to evict villagers on hold. “For the time being, we have no plan to do that,” said Zaw Moe Aung, the governor of Salin Gyi township, who was appointed six months ago.
But the women of Wethmay village are taking no chances.
After the raid on the monastery, Ms. Aye Net and Ms. Thwe Thwe Win traveled the old British road to Mandalay, a three-hour drive, and consulted with lawyers there about land rights. They bought a video camera to record any future incursions by the authorities.
Ms. Thwe Thwe Win said she was reading a copy of the country’s 2008 Constitution.
During military rule, generals ran the country by fiat, Ms. Thwe Thwe Win said. “Now we know there are rules,” she said.