Progress stops at the Myanmar elite’s door

Freedom of speech will struggle to flourish in Myanmar as its economic interests are dominated by powerful neighbours.

The state attack on Letpadaung copper mine protesters goes beyond a simple bid to stifle dissent [EPA]

The protesters were given five minutes to leave. Police surrounded their camp close to the Letpadaung copper mine in northern Myanmar in the early hours of Thursday, armed with loudspeakers, water cannons and warnings of attack. First came the water, the force of which swept away dozens of flimsy structures used to shelter hundreds of Myanmarese angered at the damage wrought over more than a decade by the country’s largest copper mine.

What came next however struck fear into the heart of Myanmar’s nascent environmental movement. Plumes of fire lit up the night sky as police and riot control units shot incendiary bombs into the clusters of tents. “They fired 10 rounds; five at a time,” one protester told the Democratic Voice of Burma. “And the sparks that landed on people’s clothing couldn’t be shaken off; they burst into flames when they attempted to do so.”

Images that emerged following the crackdown showed hospital wards filled with burn victims – men, women and Buddhist monks. “I’d prefer to be dead now than suffering [from the burns] – the pain is too unbearable,” a monk said.

The brutality of the incident conjures memories of September 2007, when hundreds of pro-democracy protesters were shot dead by Myanmar troops. That crackdown was congruent with the reputation of the military junta that ruled Myanmar at the time.

But 18 months into its experiment with democracy and wildly contradicting the progressive rhetoric of President Thein Sein, the attack last week has left many questioning the earnestness of the reforms. Moreover, the involvement of police, who operate under the auspices of the president, has cast a shadow over a leader preparing to accept a number of top peace awards.

‘Afraid of China’

The Letpadaung incident goes beyond a simple bid to stifle dissent. While environmental damage and grievances over the confiscation of 7,800 acres of land were the key focus of the resistance to the mine, in the government’s eye, these protests marked the intersection at which three hugely sensitive issues meet: The public’s ability to exercise freedom of speech, China’s influence over Myanmar and vested military interests in the country’s natural resources. 

 President Obama visits Myanmar

Put together, they indicate that at the core of government, there still exists the same fear over the standing of the elite that fuelled abuses by Myanmar’s former rulers.

Days into the protests, Aung Min, one of President Thein Sein’s top cabinet members, was caught on camera saying that the mine would stay open because, “We are afraid of China”.

Operating the copper mine is Wanbao, a subsidiary of China’s biggest weapons manufacturer, Norinco, which was awarded the contract in mid-2010 after Canadian mining giant Ivanhoe ended its controversial ownership.

Norinco said at the time that the venture would “[enhance] the influence of our country in Myanmar”, and several weeks prior to the deal being struck, the weapons’ giant reportedly shipped a sweetener in the form of howitzer cannons to Myanmar.

China was also eager for Myanmar copper, and the deal characterised the complex relationship between the two countries. For Myanmar, the developing ties had been of economic and political necessity, with Naypyidaw reliant on China’s bottomless pit of investment capital, its UN Security Council seat and willingness to sell heavy artillery to the Myanmar military.

China, on the other hand, needed its neighbour’s vast reserves of energy and natural resources to feed its growing population, as well as Myanmar’s strategically valuable land route to the Bay of Bengal and the shipments of oil coming from Africa and the Middle East.

While the relationship was one of mutual dependence, the Myanmar generals were long known to harbour a deep-seated resentment of China’s bullish presence in the region and its grip on smaller countries. That has continued.

Aung Min warned of the damage Beijing could do if it were to demand compensation for the aborted China-backed Myitsone Dam project in Kachin state, which was suspended last year amid speculations that Myanmar’s rulers were chaffing under the weight of China’s presence. “If China asks for compensation, even the Myitsone Dam shutdown would cost $3 billion,” said Aung Min.

Many lucrative contracts signed between the two governments in recent decades help keep Myanmar prisoner to Beijing’s needs, as the reluctance to close the copper mine, despite obvious unease over China, shows.

Yet the nature of these deals and the players involved has also left a burden on the new, quasi-civilian government in Myanmar. Under the former junta, Chinese and other investors targeting the natural resource sector were often forced to go into business with the Myanmar military, which still retains vast influence over the country’s economy.

Norinco had signed a production sharing agreement with the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH), a powerful conglomerate formed in 1990 that is majority-owned by the Myanmar military through the country’s defence ministry. It became the de facto economic arm of the military, and went on to form healthy relations with drug lords and cronies.

Myanmar’s most infamous businessman, Tay Za, was alleged in a leaked US cable to have helped mediate in negotiations over the future of the copper mine – a wise choice of broker, given Tay Za’s alleged involvement in the smuggling of Chinese weapons into Myanmar.

Controversial dealings

The additional involvement of the Ministry of Mines in the Norinco deal adds another uncomfortable dimension. Widely thought to be among Myanmar’s most corrupt government entities, the ministry earlier this year became the target of allegations of massive fraud over the sale of the mine to the Chinese. 

“Myanmar’s most infamous businessman, Tay Za, was alleged in a leaked US cable to have helped mediate in negotiations over the future of the copper mine.”

The Canadian Friends of Burma, which has closely followed developments in Letpadaung and the wider mining region of Monywa over the years as a result of Ivanhoe’s controversial dealings there, says the ministry “operated as the private funding arm of a brutal military regime, using offshore accounts in Singapore to hide substantial royalties from the national budget”.

The editor and publisher of The Voice journal, which first published the accusations of graft, are now on trial in a case that has become a cause célèbre for advocates of freedom of speech in Myanmar’s “democratic” era.

Powerful players in Myanmar’s political and economic fields will have watched the Letpadaung protests unfold over the past fortnight. The copper mine is Myanmar’s largest and one of the leading sources of revenue for the government.

“Whether lucrative or not, the military is directly involved in the mine so one might expect a different official response than that of protests to non-military owned companies,” a US researcher and specialist on UMEH said last week after the images of burn victims began circulating on the internet.

Despite the fallout from the crackdown, which prompted strong international reactions and an unprecedented public apology from the police chief in Sagaing division, where Monywa is located, the protest leaders are still being hounded.

In addition, Moe Thway, a member of the Generation Wave activist group, was arrested with a colleague in Yangon on December 2 during a second round of protests, this time against the November crackdown. He is now in detention.

His arrest shows that freedom of speech will struggle to flourish in a country whose most valued economic interests are dominated by powerful neighbours and military elite that considers democracy a threat to its privileged standing. It will also test the West’s developing relationship with Myanmar, which although cloaked in the rhetoric of democratisation has been driven largely by an eagerness to weaken China’s regional clout.

While the Myitsone suspension was something of a symbolic victory in this US-led “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific, the Letpadaung incident knocks that back several steps as Myanmar shows a willingness to bow to China’s destructive demands. Even Aung San Suu Kyi has warned that breaking the contract with Norinco could thwart future investments in Myanmar.

While the government’s consent to an independent probe into the crackdown is encouraging, it distracts attention from the fact that nothing is being done to tackle the root of the problem, including an overhaul of the system of protectionism that shields military economic interests.

As Human Rights Watch noted, the official response to the riot control squads who torched the camps and their inhabitants last week “will be crucial for determining whether military-invested projects still operate above the law in Burma”.

But with police still tracking the Letpadaung protesters, and concerns that land confiscation could increase as the country opens to more investment, the fear is that progress will stop at the point that it threatens the Myanmar elite’s interests, thus giving the murky economic stakeholders the final say.

Francis Wade is a Thailand-based freelance journalist and analyst covering Myanmar and Southeast Asia.

Follow him on Twitter: @Francis_Wade