Residents of Monywa town in Sagaing division last week blocked the entrance to a controversial copper mine that has been the focus of two months of protests.
Villagers have set up round-the-clock sit-ins and have urged the permanent closure of the mine amid plans by the government to expand operations there. The protesters have made numerous allegations of land grabbing and environmental pollution. They have been joined by Buddhist monks from nearby towns concerned about the integrity of pagodas in the area.
The Letpadaung mine is jointly operated by the military-owned Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd., and Myanmar Wanbao Company Ltd., a subsidiary of the Chinese state-owned China North Industries Corp., a weapons maker.
“The expansion of this project would lead to a loss of 7,000 acres of agricultural land,” said Ma Aye Nat, a local resident.
“We can only survive if this whole project is scrapped. We depend on the mountains, which are being destroyed now for copper. We used to get bamboo shoots and other vegetables from these mountains.”
Villagers began protesting in September, claiming that the mine was already polluting land and water supplies with sulfuric acid and the proposed expansion would displace residents from dozens of villages.
Last year, the multi-billion-dollar Myitsone dam project – also a China-funded project – was suspended after intense public pressure.
Aung Min, a minister from the office of President Thein Sein, met on Friday with a group of protesting monks but said this project was unlikely to be scrapped because it could affect Sino-Myanmar relations.
Ashin Javana, a monk who attended the meeting, said the monks had too much to lose to give up their protest.
“Invaluable religious sites are located inside this project,” he said. “Also, we want to stand beside the lay people who support us.”
Myanmar’s lower house of parliament unanimously approved an opposition proposal last week, to form an independent commission to look into the impact of the project.
Party leader Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to travel to the area on Thursday.