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Burma Authorities Accused of Fraud, Coercion at China-Backed Mine

Aung Thein, a founding member of Burma Lawyers Network, talks during a press conference on the investigation about the Nov. 29 crackdown at Letpadaung copper mine in central Burma, Yangon, February 14, 2013.
A group of lawyers and activists say Burmese authorities used fraud and coercion to take land from villagers for a China-backed copper mine. The lawyers say police then used excessive force to scare off protesters opposed to the mine. They are calling for an investigation of senior government officials and officers of the military-operated mine.

The Burma Lawyers Network and the U.S.-based rights group Justice Trust say authorities forced villagers to give up rights to their farmland for the extension of the Letpadaung copper mine.

A joint investigative report released by the groups Thursday, says local officials intimidated villagers to sign contracts they had never read.

The report says officials threatened those opposed to selling their land and replaced independent village heads with supporters of the mine.

Villagers interviewed for the report say officials lied to them about plans for the land, falsely claiming it would be returned to them in three years as useable farmland.

In November, when hundreds of villagers protested a $1 billion expansion of the mine, police were sent in to break up the demonstration.

Roger Normand, director of the legal rights group Justice Trust, says more than 150 protesters, many of them Buddhist monks, were severely injured. Some suffered second and third-degree burns. He says their investigation included laboratory tests that prove police fired on demonstrators with military-issued white phosphorous smoke grenades.

"It's used by militaries for smoke screen and for illumination. But, it's a chemical," said Normand. "And, so it essentially has a dual use purpose which would be against military personnel, against soldiers. And, for that it's illegal. It's not lawful for militaries to use this weapon directly against combatants."

Burma authorities apologized for the botched raid, but denied the use of white phosphorous.

The lawyers report says police use of incendiary military munitions against peaceful protesters raises questions about who gave the orders.

The copper mine is Burma's largest and is run by a Chinese military-linked company in cooperation with the largest Burmese military-owned company, Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Company Limited (UMEHL).

The deal was made during the previous military government and was criticized for a lack of transparency.

Normand says an investigation of the copper mine and crackdown needs to go higher than local police and officials.

"So, obviously questions have to be raised with the executives of these companies, which in Burma is active senior military and recently retired senior military and also the government," Normand said. "Because, of course, the government is ultimately responsible, from the president to the minister of home affairs, for the actions of police."

In December, President Thein Sein appointed opposition democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi as head of a committee to investigate the copper mine.

She met with the injured and others opposed to mine, as well as representatives of the Chinese investor, Wanbao.

Aung San Suu Kyi surprised many when she declared support for the rights of villagers, but also Burma's need to honor its obligations.

Nonetheless, Normand says Aung San Suu Kyi's appointment is a good sign because she is viewed as having a great deal of public integrity.

"On the other hand, the committee has to have the mandate and the power to be able to investigate," Normand said. "And, it's not clear whether the committee that she's been put in charge of has the mandate to look into this police action or has any kind of subpoena powers of investigation."

So far, the committee has missed two deadlines for releasing the official report - the last was January 31. It is not clear when the results will be made public.