Connect to share and comment

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.

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.

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.” " target="_blank">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