Mon 19 May 2014
Filed under: Business / Trade,Inside Burma,News,Protest / Strike,Regional
A flare-up of resilient hostility toward China among its neighbors has infected central Myanmar, where a Chinese company operating a copper mine has local residents seething over what they call the operator’s arrogance and the project’s seemingly unbridled expansion plans.
Villagers seized two Chinese employees of the mine on Sunday, and while the company’s demand that they be released was met late Monday, local residents said they remained embittered about mining’s impact on the area, including the destruction in April of a Buddhist temple.
“The Chinese don’t know our culture — how would they feel if their respected buildings were destroyed?” said Thwe Thwe Win, a villager who has fought the expansion of the mine.
The conflict comes at a time when overlapping territorial claims between Beijing and its southern neighbors have resulted in rising tensions, and in the case of Vietnam, violence in which Chinese-owned businesses appear to have been targeted.
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The Letpadaung copper mine, a joint venture between a Chinese state-owned arms manufacturer and the Myanmar military, has been a flash point in Myanmar for the past two years as angry villagers have resisted the mine’s expansion.
On Sunday, the joint venture, Myanmar Wanbao, said three contractors “were jumped upon by the activists and taken against their will.”
One of the workers, a Burmese citizen, was released Sunday. The other two, Chinese contractors, were released Monday after a tense standoff, said Cao Desheng, a spokesman for the company.
“They are in good shape,” Mr. Cao said in an email.
U Han Win Aung, an activist who opposes the mine project, said villagers abducted the workers when they saw the mine company employees surveying near their village, Kyauk Phyu Tai.
“The villagers thought the surveying meant their lands would soon be taken from them,” Mr. Han Win Aung said.
Riot police used tear gas and fired warning shots on Sunday outside the village, he said.
Mr. Cao said by telephone that until Sunday’s abduction, relations with villagers had seemed to be improving.
“We are very puzzled why this has happened,” Mr. Cao said. “We have been engaging with the communities. We don’t know why they took this violent action.”
But local residents say tensions remain and complain of what they call unacceptable behavior by the Chinese company and its employees.
“Chinese workers are strangers,” said U Myint Thein, a resident of the nearby town of Monywa. “They don’t know our local customs. So we feel they are arrogant.”
Anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam last week over China’s placement of an oil rig in disputed South China Sea waters has underscored a rising backlash against Beijing China’s appetite for natural resources increases and it becomes increasingly assertive in the region. The Chinese oil rig was towed early this month into an area 140 miles off the coast of Vietnam and claimed by both countries.
In Myanmar, the battle over the Chinese-run copper mine rose to national prominence two years ago when the Myanmar police used phosphorus smoke bombs to disperse villagers and Buddhist monks protesting outside the mine. Outrage at the violence of the crackdown — a number of monks were badly burned by the phosphorus — prompted a rare apology by the government of Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein.
Villagers outside the copper mine have objected to the mine’s expansion plans, and complained of pollution, inadequate compensation and heavy-handed land seizures. The mine controversy is one of many cases in Myanmar involving land ownership disputes.
The copper mine has also been cited as a symbol in Myanmar of resentment toward China, which is accused of plundering timber and other natural resources from the country.