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Copper mining protests hit Yangon

Environment concerns merge with anti-Chinese feeling

Protesters shout anti-Chinese slogans outside the mine site in Monywa town Protesters shout anti-Chinese slogans outside the mine site in Monywa town
  • Daniel Wynn, Yangon
  • Myanmar
  • November 27, 2012
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Protests against a controversial copper mine project in central Myanmar involving Chinese interests spread to Yangon on Monday. But as the movement gathers momentum, it has received mixed signals from opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

With their faces painted in shimmering red make-up to resemble copper, nearly a hundred people rallied in front of Yangon's City Hall and chanted, “Wanbao Company, get out!” and “We don’t want Wanbao.”

Undeterred by police, the protesters demanded the complete cancelation of the copper mine project which they say has displaced villagers and polluted the environment in Saigaing division's Monywa town. After the protests, some of the organizers were taken to a police station and questioned briefly before being released.

The project is jointly owned by the Chinese state-owned Myanmar Wanbao Mining Co.Ltd and the army-owned Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd.

“This is a collaborative movement against the project. We don’t represent any organization,” said Han Win Aung, a former political prisoner who participated in the protest. 

Nearly 200 monks also staged a rally this morning in Monywa town, also calling for the cancelation of the project and joining protesters at the site on the west bank of the Chindwin River.

Mining activities have been shut down since Monday due to the protests.

The protests mark the second-largest public movement against a Chinese-related investment following the official suspension last year of the multi-billion-dollar Chinese-funded Myitsone dam project. The project was to have been built on the Irrawaddy River and would have provided electricity to northwestern China.

Security has been increased around the Chinese Consulate in Mandalay, the country’s second-most populated city and a hub of Chinese investment, where anti-Chinese sentiment has often run high.

But the current protests have not received strong endorsements from mainstream opposition groups such as Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and the 88 Generation Students.

Even the local press, which played an active role in last year’s movement against the Myitsone dam, has been largely silent on this issue. In interviews with the local press on Monday, Suu Kyi said the lack of transparency in making project contracts have resulted in public resentment. But she added that canceling ongoing projects would undermine the image of the country in its struggle to reconnect with the outside world.

“Our country has signed the contract for this project. If we unilaterally cancel it, then we will have to compensate [the other party] for it, which we must consider,” she said.

“For our country to have an honorable place in the world, we need to keep our pledges. We must keep our word. If the investors think that we do not keep our word, then they will lose interest in our country.” 

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