Burma learns how to protest – against Chinese investors
Burma’s steps towards democracy have made it possible for people to protest publicly, for the first time in decades, against things they don’t like – and Chinese businesses have turned out to be top of their list.
Standing at the bottom of the vast open mine, I am a tiny matchstick figure.
My colleagues are standing hundreds of feet above but they can’t hear my shouts or even see my face.
From their perspective, the giant dumper trucks snaking their way to the bottom of the pit look like children’s toys.
This is one of the world’s top 10 copper deposits, expected to generate tens of billions of dollars over the next 30 years.
According to its Chinese co-owners, the metal extracted here, in the north-west Sagaing Region, is of the purest quality and much sought-after globally.
Most is destined for Japan, Malaysia and the Middle East, but Geng Yi, the young managing director from Beijing, believes Burma itself will soon be an important customer.
Although five decades of military rule have turned Burma – or Myanmar as the generals named it – into the poorest nation in the region, it has ambitions to become a “golden bridge” between the mega-economies of India and China.
To achieve this goal, cash from abroad is urgently needed.
“To be frank, we don’t have much capital to implement our economic reforms,” says Koko Hlaing, the government’s chief political adviser.
“Capitalism cannot be implemented without capital.”
The copper mine, is a joint venture between China’s Wanbao company – a subsidiary of the arms manufacturer, Norinco – and the deeply unpopular business arm of the Burmese military, which has lucrative stakes in everything from banking to beer, as well as a monopoly on the gems sector.
Its close connection to the men in khaki has also given it preferential contracts with foreign firms, such as this one clinched in 2011, before the nominally civilian government came to power.
But in the new Burma such deals are under public scrutiny.
The country recently held democratic elections, ended censorship and released hundreds of political prisoners. Now many are questioning authority for the first time in their lives.
Two cousins, whose faces are now famous across Burma, have become figureheads for opposition to a $1bn scheme to expand the mine, which will affect 8,000 acres (3,000 hectares) of farmland and 26 villages near the town of Monywa.
The farmers’ daughters, dubbed the Iron Ladies by a local poet, have led thousands of villagers, monks, environmental campaigners and other activists in protest, against what they say is the unlawful seizure of their land.
The women come from the village of Wet Hmay (which means Sleepy Pig in Burmese). Along with dozens of other households, they are refusing to move from their homes into a brand new village of identical, neatly spaced houses with corrugated metal roofs.
The younger cousin, Thwe Thwe Win has a round face, a husky voice and a manner as pungent as the garlic she sells in the market.
“We want the mine closed down immediately,” she says. “No-one should colonise our land.”
In their fields, which lie in the shadow of a towering waste dump, I meet her cousin Aye Net, who complains that her sesame and beans are much sparser since the mine expansion started.
“When it rains, water drains through the dump and on to our land. There’s something acid in it,” she says.
“We don’t want compensation. We just want to grow our crops and live here as we have for generations.”
Environmental campaigners and activists from the pro-democracy youth group Generation Wave joined the villagers’ protest.
Some locals have complained that the sulphuric acid used to leach copper from ore has contaminated drinking water although the Wanbao Company denies this.
U Wi Tatatema, a 21-year-old monk from the central city of Mandalay, says he read about the mining project in the newspapers and came to give his support.
“When I saw the village women sitting on the ground and singing the national anthem in protest, I cried,” he says.
“The mountains are as precious as our parents – so I felt as if they were slaughtering my own mother.”
Plans to relocate a sacred pagoda which was once home to a famous Buddhist teacher, helped to mobilise hundreds more of his fellow monks.
Along with other protesters, they occupied the hillside temple, in the heart of the mining complex, for several days.
Since they were forcibly evicted, it has been guarded night and day by police.
Geng Yi, the mine’s director, admits the protests made him feel “uncomfortable and unsafe” and he is still clearly frustrated by all the delays holding up the expansion plan.
“Without the rule of law and stability how can this country attract or protect foreign investments?” he asks.
“From our point of view, we would like the government and important people to pay attention.”
When the government finally reacted, the confrontation turned ugly.
On 28 November, riot police cleared the protest camps which had brought the mine to a standstill.
Nearly 100 villagers and monks were injured. Many suffered horrific burns caused by incendiary devices – possibly phosphorous shells.
The brutal crackdown was a stark reminder that the country’s transition to democracy is still in its infancy.
Many suspect the government acted to avoid angering China – the country’s powerful northern neighbour and biggest investor.
President Thein Sein’s popularity shot up last year after he suspended the $3.6bn Myitsone hydro-electric dam on the Irrawaddy river – another controversial Chinese mega-project – but perhaps he was warned not to make the same mistake twice.
Whatever the case, latent Sinophobia has recently exploded.
At a demonstration outside the Chinese Embassy in Rangoon one banner said “This is our Country – Dracula China Get out!”
Kyaw Min Swe, editor of The Voice newspaper, said many Burmese bitterly resent Beijing for its cosy relationship with the former military junta and are now determined China’s unchallenged dominance should end.
“The old regime got everything it needed from China – legitimacy, weapons and political support, like a veto in the UN Security Council and people had to put up with this for so many years.
“Now they are channelling all their anger with China into opposing this copper mine,” he says.
Six activists from the demo outside the embassy have been charged with holding a protest without permission. If found guilty they could face fines and two years in prison.
A parliamentary investigation into whether the mine expansion should be allowed to go ahead – chaired by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi – is likely to condemn the police for their heavy handed response, when it reports in the next few days.
But the investigation is a poisoned chalice for the Nobel laureate.
It is unclear how far she will risk antagonising either China or the Burmese top brass – outside the halls of the new parliament the military still wields formidable power.
Immediately after the crackdown, at a rally in the nearby town of Monywa, Aung San Suu Kyi got cheers for denouncing police brutality, but she also stressed the importance of friendly ties with neighbouring countries.
As the icon of Burmese democracy her role was clearly defined – she struggled for freedom against one of the world’s most oppressive regimes.
But now that she is an elected politician, she has to deal with Iron Ladies as well as army generals.