Military minefields blocking transition to democracy
Protests such as those against the Latpadaung copper mine are putting a spotlight on powerful conglomerates run by former generals who have traded their uniforms for business suits and are accused of carving up the country's natural wealth with China
The term ''irreversible transformation'' is popular these days with Myanmar's former military generals who use it at international roadshows, but as the Latpadaung copper mine unrest shows, the transformation may be largely superficial. When protests at the mine led by monks and local activists were brutally broken up by the government late last month, injuring more than 50 protesters, it was stark proof of military's lingering dominance. The unrest also highlights concerns over political and economic ties between the Myanmar military and the Chinese government. The Latpadaung copper mine project is a joint venture between the Chinese-owned Wanbao Mining Company and the Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Company (UMEH), which not coincidentally is run by former military officers.
angry locals gather in Monywa at a public assembly regarding the Latpadaung copper mine.
The crackdown at the mine near the town of Monywa in Sagaing Division on Nov 29 occurred just hours before opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was scheduled to meet protesters. Afterwards, as images of injured monks evoked the military's violent suppression of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, she spoke with enraged locals in Monywa. During a public assembly there, Mrs Suu Kyi demanded that the government provide an explanation for the crackdown, but also urged the angry crowd to be patient and solve the problem in a mature way as many issues including national reconciliation and the country's relationship with China were involved. As she spoke some members of the crowd asked why UMEH had taken control of the project from the Ministry of Mines. Anti-Chinese sentiment among the crowd was also evident. The Chinese embassy in Myanmar has pledged its government's commitment to a ''favourable environment for the project's smooth operation, based on respect for the laws and regulations of Myanmar''.
LEGACY OF THE OLD REGIME
Local resentments arose in 2010 after Wanbao Mining Company, a subsidiary of the Chinese arms manufacturer Norinco, became involved in the mine, and plans for expansion were announced. More than 3,000 hectares of land were grabbed from 26 villages in the Latpadaung mountain range and thousands of villagers have been displaced to make way for the expansion.
Dong Yunfei, administrative manager in Myanmar for Wanbao, told the Myanmar Independent News Journal that initially the locals were asking only for compensation, but after political organisations became involved in the protest they put their own agenda forward and the protesters began calling for the mine to be shut down. He also told the journal that everything happened ''because of a lack of transparency in this project''.
The copper mine project is one of the legacies of the old military regime. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao made a two-day state visit in 2010 during the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Myanmar and signed bilateral agreements on energy, hydropower projects, mining, trading and technology development. This was five months before the elections which supposedly transferred power to a civilian government, but some say that dictatorship still exists in Myanmar in the form of military conglomerates and quasi-governmental structures with strong backing from China.
In fact the transformation of Myanmar's military has been underway since the 1990s, when soldiers began trading uniforms for business suits and taking over government ministries and state conglomerates. Two of these in particular _ the Myanmar Economic Cooperation (MEC) and UMEH _ are unavoidable in the daily lives of the people as they dominate every sector providing basic public needs, including transport, food and drinking water. Businesses controlled by UMEH and MEC including shipping, mining, gem trading, textiles, banking, transport and breweries.
The Heritage Foundation's 2012 Economic Freedom index lists Myanmar as one of the world's 10 most repressive economies, saying it is ''hampered by extensive state controls and structural problems that severely undermine development of the private sector, lags in productivity growth and dynamic economic expansion''.
In a parliamentary session last month, Defence Minister Lt Gen Wai Lwin had this to say when asked about UMEH: ''UMEH was founded with the savings of military veterans, disabled soldiers and serving military officers. Its profits go directly to the shareholders,'' said Lt Gen Wai Lwin. The answer did little to satisfy those who question the military's economic dominance in a country where the military makes up less than 1% of the population.
A middle-aged activist from Monywa who didn't want to be named said, ''It should not happen under the transformed government that our country's resources are managed by a company like UMEH.'' Along with several others, he is urging immediate institutional reform to solve this problem.
Pictures of monks with severe burns, apparently caused by incendiary devices used by security forces in the crackdown, appear in local media and social networks and are driving continuing protests and unrest in Yangon, Mandalay and Monywa. The government has tried to cool the situation by having security forces issue an apology and forming a parliamentary commission led by Mrs Suu Kyi to investigate the crackdown and assess whether the project should be allowed to proceed.
Aung San Suu Kyi meets villagers and protesters who live in the project area.
Local activists like Thwe Thwe Winsay say they accept the Nobel laureate as a negotiator and arbitrator, but they aren't waiting quietly for the commission's findings. ''We will continue our protest against the project,'' she vowed.
Members of the parliamentary commission formed to investigate the Latpadaung copper mine project and crackdown are now meeting with local villagers to gather information related to the project's environmental and social impact.
One local involved in the mining industry said the Latpadaung copper mine is a ''family interest of the big guys involved. Everything depends totally on the big guys who really rule the country.''
MP Khin San Hlaing, a member of the commission, said: ''We are going to submit a report to the commission after this fact-finding mission. We expect to find the truth [and make recommendations that] reflect the people's needs and benefit the locals.''
The protesters hope that through the commission the government will be pressured to make a decision like the one last year which suspended the Myitsone Dam project in Kachin state. Pubic protests prompted President Thein Sein to tell the Ministry of Energy to halt the China-sponsored mega project on the Irrawaddy River, but so far the president has given no indication he might take a similar stand on the Latpadaung copper mine. There is speculation that issuing a demand on the military conglomerate is beyond the civil administration's power, and also that the government does not want to further antagonise Beijing after the Myitsone decision.
President's Office Minister Aung Min openly admitted that ''we are afraid of China'' during negotiations with copper mine protesters last month, adding that China had played a ''saviour's role'' in Myanmar after 1988 when it was largely isolated from the rest of the world.
THE TIES THAT BIND
While many countries and corporations are lining up to do business inside Myanmar, China remains the biggest investor, having bought up a lot of the country's natural resources outright during the military rule. One huge and controversial initiative that has attracted the attention of activists is the Shwe gas project, aimed at tapping huge newly discovered underwater natural gas deposits off the coast of Rakhine state. As part of the project a deep-sea port is being developed at Maday Island and pipelines are being constructed from the island to Kunming in southwest China and on to Nanning. Chinese energy companies, including the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation and China National United Oil Corporation, are involved in developing the deep-sea port and oil storage facilities on Maday Island and construction of the pipeline. Activists say they oppose the project because it will transfer Myanmar's energy wealth to develop southwest China, and also because it is a source of human rights and environmental abuses in Myanmar.
Wong Aung, the coordinator of the Shwe Gas Movement formed to oppose the project, has said the main concerns are grave human rights abuses in relation to forced labour and land confiscation; environmental degradation of the forest and costal ecosystems; restricted development for the local communities and increased conflict between the military and ethnic groups.
The protests around the Shwe gas project, the Latpadaung copper mine and other controversial projects are a direct challenge to the government, as well as the military conglomerates and their Chinese counterparts, for the right to determine the direction of the country.
A campaign has begun to boycott products supplied by UMEH, but this is not always practical since these products are ubiquitous and often essential for people in their daily lives. On the surface Myanmar appears to be a country making a remarkable transformation to democracy, but its political and economic foundations are still controlled by the old military regime.
When the anti-copper mine protesters and others take on the powerful conglomerates with Chinese backing it is like hitting a brick wall with their heads, but if the entire country can be persuaded to go along it might set in motion a truly ''irreversible transformation''.
In a press conference last week a member of the pressed asked Mrs Suu Kyi whether it would be difficult to solve the copper mine dispute because of UMEH's involvement.
She answered: ''I don't think it would be difficult to solve no matter if it is UMEH or any other company, as we are going to solve the problem based on the rule of law.'' The question is whether the newly recognised rule of law has the power to bring about real institutional reform in Myanmar.
a local villager who makes a living from mining waste walks through a landscape laid bare by the mine.
About the author
Writer: Mon Mon Myat