Copper Mine Crackdown Shows Governance Gaps in Myanmar

By Phuong Nguyen

Monywa copper mine in northwest Myanmar was the site of a recent government crackdown. The incident highlighted underlying incongruity between the government and its citizens. Source: dianetell's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

The attack by government forces November 29 against demonstrators protesting the Chinese-backed Letpadaung copper mine near Monywa in northwestern Myanmar quickly emerged as a national – and global –concern.  The raid against protest camps around company headquarters injured more than 80 people, including Buddhist monks.

The assault, by far the most violent crackdown on peaceful protests since President Thein Sein took office March 2011, dealt a blow to the government’s image as one of a regime seeking to promote democratic reform. At the same time, the events present an opportunity and practical test for participants in Myanmar’s young democracy to try to find a common voice for the first time since reforms began in 2011.

Some key actors in the country’s political circles have seemingly come together in the wake of the crisis. Parliament November 23 agreed to form an independent commission to look into the mine’s expansion, and President Thein Sein December 1 appointed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to head the commission.

Prior to the crackdown, both Suu Kyi and Aung Min, a prominent minister in the President’s Office, contended that the government should not unilaterally break a contract that its military-owned conglomerate, the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH), had signed with a Chinese company two years ago. Local police December 1 issued a formal apology to monks injured during the raid, reportedly after talks between Suu Kyi and local authorities.

However, the government’s approach has done little to appease the demonstrators, which includes farmers, students, and Buddhist monks. New democratic institutions (and the peaceful assembly law passed in 2011) and a more open political space have allowed Myanmar civil society to quickly emerge as a force of its own. Farmers in Monywa began to protest in August against illegal confiscation of more than 7,800 acres of land from surrounding villages and waste-dumping by the mine in the area.

By early November, with countrywide support, protesters demanded the immediate suspension of the project, a thorough and independent government study of the mine’s environmental impact, and adequate compensation for damage caused to the local community. Following the crackdown and arrest of six activists, prominent ‘88-generation leader Min Ko Naing refused the president’s offer to serve on the government-appointed commission, instead choosing to work independently alongside local residents.

Until now, the government has not directly addressed the core public concerns, mainly environmental issues and land ownership concerns. Minister Aung Min’s November 26 call to honor the mining contract with the Chinese company, reminding residents of Chinese food aid during international sanctions against the country, backfired with protesters and activists alike. Many rebuked him by pointing out that Chinese aid benefitted the military regime and its cronies rather than ordinary citizens. The asymmetry in views and interests between the government and its constituents will need to be addressed in order for both sides to find a common solution.

In the following weeks, President Thein Sein’s government will need to investigate, clarify, and take responsibility for the unclear circumstances of the crackdown.  Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership of the investigation commission, together with her visit to injured monks at the local hospital, goes a long way toward calming public grievances. But this alone will not be enough to restore the government’s credibility and commitment to reforms in the eyes of the public and the world. The commission is expected to submit its report to the president January 31. Suu Kyi this week warned that the findings and recommendations will not satisfy everyone.

Myanmar will need to come to terms with and address the economic legacy of the former military regime. The Monywa events demonstrate , on one hand, that the public does not see the former ruling elite’s economic interests as legitimate or beneficial to the country. On the other hand, the continued dominance of powerful and politically connected elements in the new system will sooner or later lead to tensions over other commercial projects (such as perhaps the Shwe gas and oil pipelines and other hydroelectric projects with China).

The government is finding that it cannot easily sweep under the carpet the ramifications of 50 years of economic misrule. Potential new foreign investors are watching carefully to see how the government finally manages to resolve this dispute.

Ms. Phuong Nguyen is a researcher for the CSIS Chair for Southeast Asia Studies.