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Myanmar officials 'involved in land grab'

Publication Date : 15-02-2013


A damning report on the violence at a copper mine in northern Myanmar last November accuses government officials of siding with Chinese and Myanmar military investors to force villagers to surrender their farmland to the mine.

Police brutally broke up protests against the move but these have not died down.

The release of the report by a civil society group in Yangon yesterday will put pressure on an official probe into the incident. The Monywa Commission, headed by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, missed its January 31 deadline for the release of its report.

Yesterday's report by the Myanmar-based Lawyers Network and the US-based Justice Trust came as tensions persist over the mine, a joint venture between Chinese weapons manufacturer Wanbao and the Myanmar military's business arm, the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL).

A major expansion of the mine threatens to displace residents of several villages.

The investigation "proves that government authorities used coercion and fraud to force villagers to give up rights to their farmland", says the report.

"When communities tried to complain, police first denied them permits to demonstrate and then used excessive force, including military-issue white phosphorus weapons, to set their protest camps on fire and inflict second- and third-degree chemical burns on over 100 monks and villagers."

The civil society report will be a challenge to the Monywa Commission which has limited powers - and also to Suu Kyi, who is re-balancing her relationship with the army - to produce a credible report, analysts said.

The protests have continued. On January 29, residents from some 60 villages in the area congregated to demand the official report. They also stuck to their demand that the mine be closed.

"We need clear answers over the Letpadaung issue," senior monk Sandar Thiri, from an area monastery, was quoted as saying.

The civil society report states: "The interests of the Wanbao- UMEHL joint venture were represented by senior-most officials from Sagaing Region and Sarlingyi Township, in breach of their duties as civil servants mandated to act in the public interest.

"These officials misused their powers to punish villagers opposed to selling their land, for example, unlawfully arresting and detaining an outspoken farmer during contract negotiations, and replacing independent village heads with active supporters of the mine."

The dispute has reformist President Thein Sein caught between appeasing local communities and honouring commitments made to a Chinese investor. He is also caught between the risk of upsetting army factions which benefit from deals made by the UMEHL and the need to ensure accountability over the coercion and botched crackdown on protesters.

Lawyers Network founder member U Aung Thein said "the use of coercion and fraud to force villagers to sign contracts is illegal. Under Burmese law these contracts are invalid and can be rescinded by the villagers".

Wanbao said on January 28 that it had cooperated fully with the official investigation and urged people to be patient and wait for the report.

The civil society report recommends that investigations focus not only on the local authorities, but also on senior officials in the government, military, Wanbao and UMEHL, who have "command responsibility for the actions of local government and police".


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