Testing Myanmar’s reforms: At Letpadaung mine, villagers stand up to generals

Large piles of dirt extracted from mining sites around Letpadaung Mountain encroach on a pagoda near Ah Lay Daw village. Many of the monks burned on November 29, 2012 were protesting the mine's encroachment on a historical Bhuddist monastery within the mine's grounds.</p>

Large piles of dirt extracted from mining sites around Letpadaung Mountain encroach on a pagoda near Ah Lay Daw village. Many of the monks burned on November 29, 2012 were protesting the mine's encroachment on a historical Bhuddist monastery within the mine's grounds.

LETPADAUNG MOUNTAIN, Myanmar — For nearly a century, Seh Deh was a dull hamlet inhabited by rugged farmers and skinny cows. But in recent months, the village has been under siege.

Locals man lookout posts on nearby hilltops. A crude gate built of logs and thorny bramble obstructs the dirt-road entrance. The several-hundred villagers sleep fitfully. When sentries alert them in the dead of night, they jolt from their shacks to sweep out intruders.

Beyond this settlement lie the front lines: vast fields of sesame and pigeon pea being buried under towering mounds of mine waste. If Myanmar’s authorities get their way, these dregs will creep forth until all of Seh Deh and parts of 25 other villages are submerged under soil.

These villages sit in the path of a $1 billion expansion to the most profitable mine complex in Myanmar, the Southeast Asian nation formerly called Burma. The project, which will slowly hollow out a copper-rich mountain called Letpadaung, is owned by a Chinese defense conglomerate and a secretive investment wing run by Myanmar’s military.

But Seh Deh villagers have fought the mine with surprising defiance. “If we spot their dump trucks coming, we mobilize all the villagers to rush out,” said Aung Suu, 38, a volunteer village defender with a bruiser’s frame. “We’re teaching them a lesson: never come here again. The last time, the driver and his police escort fled. The next time, the villagers might burn up his truck.”

In Myanmar, long dominated by generals, such rebellion has long been regarded as an invitation to martyrdom.

But these are not typical times.

Mining in a time of reform

Cheered on by the White House, Myanmar’s president has promised a new era of international engagement and Western-style freedoms. In doing so, however, they have emboldened a raucous upcountry resistance in this Nevada-esque expanse 80 miles from Mandalay, where fingers of cacti poke through the soil.

As the nation watches transfixed, and as smaller protest movements spark up around the country, this struggle has become a crucible testing peasants’ power to challenge the powerful.

Authorities in the past two years have ordered more than 1,500 farmers to relocate. But so far, many remain unbowed — even after offers of jobs and cash; even after the intervention of Aung San Suu Kyi, the revered dissident-turned-lawmaker, who has told villagers to drop their crusade; even after the police crackdown on an anti-mine protest that disfigured monks, some as young as 16, with white phosphorous munitions.

To the villagers, this is an old narrative in which livelihoods are undermined for the benefit of privileged military brass. Fed up with the upheaval and environmental destruction wrought by copper mining, the villagers are demanding an end to the massive project.

“We’re loyal to our ancestral village. And the government is loyal to a copper mine,” said Yee Yee Win, a 38-year-old mother of four. Her land has officially been confiscated by the mine but she continues to farm it. “We have to stop them from destroying this mountain.”

Ultimate wealth device

The economic forces behind this embattled mine are as opaque as they are influential.

Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited, or UMEHL, is the military’s chief business consortium. Companies under UMEHL’s umbrella — many of them monopolies — mine gems, make soap, mix sulfuric acid, operate banks and hotels, brew beer and run supermarkets.

Yet “almost nothing” about UMEHL inner workings is made public, said Sean Turnell, an expert on Myanmar’s economy and professor at Australia’s Macquarie University. UMEHL doesn’t pay taxes. Its profits, its losses and even the names on its board of directors are kept hidden.

Even the US State Department has struggled to crack UMEHL’s shell. Leaked 2009 cables from America’s embassy acknowledge that “it is difficult to pinpoint who exactly owns what” within the consortium, described as epitomizing “the reach and breadth of the military’s domination over Burma’s economy.” (The US continues to use the country’s former name.)

Despite recently rolling back sanctions against Myanmar, the US government still forbids citizens to cut deals with UMEHL. “That certainly is adding to the difficulty of doing business in Burma,” Turnell said “particularly in all the areas in which UMEHL is active. International investors have to be careful who they’re dealing with.”

China has never sanctioned the regime and its companies have pounced on Myanmar’s resources. According to its own stats, China is the nation’s biggest foreign investor by far, with current projects valued at $14.1 billion — an amount exceeding a quarter of Myanmar’s estimated GDP. Many of those endeavors, Turnell said, involve extracting Myanmar’s bountiful metals and gems.

“This is a major part of the economy,” he said. “These things are highly portable, intrinsically valuable and relatively stable. You can’t trust the state or the banks to be stable. So they’re the ultimate wealth devices.”

The ore beneath Letpadaung Mountain and nearby hills could keep the military wealthy for a long time. Once expanded to its full potential, the mine is expected to extract 100,000 metric tons of copper — worth more than $700 million at current market prices — every year for the next three decades.

UMEHL will barely have to invest a cent. The Chinese state-owned defense conglomerate Norinco, through a mining subsidiary called Wanbao, is supplying more than $1 billion needed to break down the mountain and get at its copper.

“This is the most valuable asset controlled by the largest military company in the country,” said Roger Normand, director of the Justice Trust, a US-based attorneys’ network that has investigated abuses at the Letpadaung copper mine. “It’s their cash cow.”

Burned to the bone

The crusade to slay that cash cow wasn’t born overnight. But it galvanized in the pre-dawn hours of Nov. 29, just hours before Aung San Suu Kyi was due to arrive and help broker peace between the mine and its opponents.

At around 2:30 a.m., riot cops turned a sleepy protest encampment into a maelstrom of screaming, scrambling and monks sizzled alive.

Like many who endured the crackdown, Pyin Nyar Sara woke up wet and confused. The 16-year-old monk was among roughly 600 bedded down in a makeshift camps near Wanbao’s gates when police deluged them with water cannons. Something metallic plunked down beside him. And then suddenly there was light and flame and wailing.

Only when Pyin Nyar Sara stopped running did the pain sink in. The rubber strap on his left flip-flop had melted into his foot. His friend, 18-year-old novice monk Shin Yar Sein Na, fared much worse: Parts of his face were cooked to the white meat. “It burned just to breathe in,” he said. “The smell was like the chemicals you use to kill bugs.”

The attack transformed a seething regional feud into one of the largest scandals in post-reform Myanmar. The images of maimed monks — circulated by newspapers that just recently overcame decades of censorship — recalled the bad old days of street protests quelled with bloody force.

“We were shocked,” said Thein Than Oo, a 60-year-old Mandalay-based attorney and three-time political prisoner who represents villagers aggrieved by the mine.

“The so-called civilian president, U Thein Sein, said he wants change. They want to march toward democracy. So we weren’t expecting such a serious attack.”

Police initially claimed they’d fired tear gas into the crowd. Only later, when Normand lab-tested canisters retrieved from the site, did authorities confess that they had used white phosphorus smoke grenades.

“Militaries love this weapon,” said Normand, former Asia-Pacific director with International Commission of Jurists who has also investigated human rights abuses in the Middle East. “You’re supposed to fire them in the air. In the middle of the night, it can flare up a whole area. But if it rains down ... it burns holes in people.”

When white phosphorus comes into contact with skin, the chemical “creates an intense and persistent burn, emitting heat and absorbing liquid,” according to Human Rights Watch, which has also condemned the US and Israeli militaries for firing the substance into densely populated areas. “White phosphorus can also penetrate the body and poison internal organs.”

“It clumps into globs of acid,” Normand said. “Superheated, 800-degree, flaming acid. It can burn to the bone.”

When Aung San Suu Kyi arrived a few hours later, local hospitals were packed with badly injured monks and the villagers’ rage was nearly unmanageable.

“It seems that a powerful person decided to give the finger to the president and Suu Kyi in a very public way,” Normand said. “This is the mentality of people who are used to getting whatever they want. They are not used to opposition.”

“Chinese slaves”

Inside the dust-swept settlements encircling Letpadaung Mountain, many of Wanbao’s neighbors do not welcome the Chinese firm.

“They’re colonizers,” said Sandar, a 32-year-old merchant who has helped orchestrate village surveillance teams to keep out intruders. She is paranoid that Wanbao will dispatch arsonists to torch defiant villages. “They’ve bullied us with their money, and they’ve tyrannized us along with UMEHL. We cannot let them come inside our peaceful villages.”

Wanbao views matters differently. The Norinco subsidiary is “proud to have been adopted into the ancient network of friends, family and neighbors” surrounding the mine, according to its Web site.

During four weeks of contact with GlobalPost, Wanbao officials agreed to three different face-to-face interviews. All were cancelled at the last minute. But in a series of e-mails, a top official with Wanbao portrayed the mine as a force for prosperity in one of Southeast Asia’s most destitute places.

“We believe very simply that the way to eradicate poverty once and for all, and provide financial and emotional security to the villagers, is by helping them achieve a secure future,” wrote Liu Xiaoduan, deputy manager of Wanbao’s operations department. “Our goal is for Wanbao to become a source of industrialization in the area.”

Wanbao now employs 2,200 citizens of Myanmar. When the mine expands, Xiaoduan wrote, it will create another 2,500 more jobs.

The nearly 450 families under evacuation orders are eligible to live in one of several Wanbao-built hamlets already constructed and wired with electricity. Each relocated household will be offered one job in the mine paying at least $3.50 per day, an above-average salary for unskilled labor in Myanmar.

But this vision of “industrialization” holds no allure for many farmers, who view land as supreme and the cash economy as an inherently risky. In villages such as Seh Deh, where there is no electricity let alone banks, a field full of crops is valued higher than a steady paycheck.

“We only know cultivation,” Yee Yee Win said. “You can’t take that away from us. Do they really expect us to sit around all day while one family member works in the mine?”

The villagers say they have good reason for wanting to stop the mine expansion that will destroy Letpadaung mountain.

The overall mining complex, divided between two mountain formations, offers residents a glimpse of the future.

Less than 10 miles away sits the mine’s original site, which has extracted copper since the late 1990s. In pursuit of the buried metal, mine operators have turned two peaks into bald craters and dumped the resulting mine waste in rubbly heaps about the area. The air is hazy with disturbed earth. Former farming families evicted from land now controlled by the project subsist by turning mine dregs into copper over pits of acid

For two years, Wanbao has attempted to pay farmers from more than 25 villages to abandon their croplands so that the mine can control roughly 12 square miles of terrain needed for its grand expansion. This endeavor, handled through local government, has been tainted by lies, threats and outright strong arm tactics, according to Thein Than Oo, the attorney, who has sent the government a lengthy report detailing abuses.

Villagers have been herded en masse to tables piled high with half-obscured contracts and bundles of cash, he said. Many were promised their croplands would be needed for just three years as a throughway for machinery. Instead, he said, officials goaded them into signing over their fields for six decades. “It’s just, ‘Sign here and take the money or else,’” Thein Than Oo said. “It’s coercion.”

“She does not have all the power”

In years past, when the junta still doled out long prison terms at the mere whisper of organized resistance, the villagers would likely have swallowed their bile in silence.

Instead, last summer they started rallying loudly enough to attract the attention of Aung San Suu Kyi, globally considered a paragon of effective, dignified protest.

Most locals blindly assumed she would use her newfound access to parliament to drive out the mine, Sandar said.

The Nobel Peace Laureate, however, has done the exact opposite. Before mobs of hysterical, flailing villagers near Letpadaung Mountain, she insisted in a March visit to Letpadaung mountain that the mine must go on — if only to generate enough profit to bankroll an environmental cleanup.

Further stoking villagers’ rage was her contention that the phosphorus attacks go unpunished. During her commission’s investigation, the military agreed to set off a white phosphorus grenade in a field for Aung San Suu Kyi’s edification, according to Nyan Win, 70, her spokesman and longtime confidante.

“They showed The Lady (Aung San Suu Kyi’s nickname) that only fumes come out that don’t do harm to the people,” Nyan Win told GlobalPost. “Only if there is water does it make a change that enflames their skin.”

“The police,” Nyan Win said, “did not know the consequences of this bomb.” Her commission’s report chalked up the attack’s violent outcome to shoddy riot control training. But it also prodded Wanbao to reexamine its contracts and initiated a new round of land buyouts at improved rates. “We mean to solve these problems through the law,” Nyan Win said.

News of Aung San Suu Kyi’s siding with both police and the mine turned her March visit into a chaotic spectacle of shrieking villagers. Their reaction was a testament to the nation’s outsized expectations of a woman who, despite moral authority amassed through a quarter century of resistance, still has limited power over the forces that once confined her.

“People have such high expectations from Aunt Suu,” Nyan Win said. “She does not have all the power ... she can’t do anything about some of these projects. Some projects, we only know their names. It’s not transparent. We can’t just tell all the projects to withdraw.”

Despite swaying Western powers to freeze trade with Myanmar’s government for more than two decades, she now operates as the leader of a single party in a parliament stacked with army appointees. Suu Kyi has accepted the fact that pressing for change from within the government is bound to disenchant some of her followers, Nyan Win said.

Her primary objective, he said, is ensuring that the government’s nascent reform movement stays the course.

“It’s a delicate job. We try not to fight so much ... every problem should be handled through dialogue and non-violence,” Nyan Win said. “She doesn’t try to make everybody happy. She always says she does not give false hope to the people.”

Still, the villagers who’d convinced themselves Aung San Suu Kyi would join their upcountry resistance describe feelings of betrayal that ache and linger on.

“I guess our expectations were too big,” said Nay Zar Oo, 25, a farmer who joined the screaming throng around Aung San Suu Kyi in March. “We expected too much from her. We still do.”

“She has her limits,” Thein Than Oo said. “We must start to accept this. If she stood with the people, the junta would oppose her. If she stood with the junta, the people would oppose her. It’s catch-22 with no escape.”

A defiant peasantry

The sweeping fields of sesame and pigeon pea sandwiched between Seh Deh and the copper mine have become a no man’s land.

This is what Myanmar’s government calls a “144 area,” where intruders can be detained or taken down with force.

Yee Yee Win, stout and brassy, is an unrepentant trespasser.

Though she legally signed over her farmlands to the mine — a deal fraught with deception, independent lawyers say — Yee Yee Win continues to till her soil as if the contract never existed. The last time Wanbao workers in hard hats were caught on her farmland, she summoned a pack of villagers to chase them through the fields.

“I don’t care what their papers say,” said Yee Yee Win. “This is still mine.”

However ensconced in scandal, the copper mine will almost certainly carry out its expansion in some form.

UMEHL has sought to extract the region’s untapped copper since the 1990s when a previous partner, the Canada-based Ivanhoe mining firm, proclaimed the mountain could pump out 100,000 tons per year. At Seh Deh village’s outer fringe, the operation has already amassed a hill, the color of Martian earth, that is bigger than an aircraft carrier.

Each day, the hill creeps a little closer to the village.

On a recent visit to her farmland, Yee Yee Win spotted a plume of orange dust stirring on the horizon. As it approached, it became the silhouette of a man on a motorcycle whipping up dirt clouds beneath his wheels. A policeman was coming, she said.

But Yee Yee Win did not budge. She appeared to relish the idea of a face off.

“I will stay on my land until I’m dead,” she said. “Until my very last day.”