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After decades of human rights abuses, Myanmar's generals have recently freed political prisoners, reduced censorship and held limited elections — prompting countries to lift sanctions. But a year-long GlobalPost investigation has found that protests, violence and cronyism are testing Myanmar's reforms — and tarnishing the reputation of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Copper country 10
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. (Jonah M. Kessel/GlobalPost)

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

As Aung San Suu Kyi arrived to mediate the mine controversy, police fired phosphorus grenades at monks, illustrating the Nobel Laureate’s powerlessness.

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.”