Thursday, November 29, 2012

Two Iron Ladies Battle Chinese Copper Mine in Burma

Two so-called Iron Ladies at the mine site. They want the
Chinese copper mine completely shut down.
WETHMAY, MYANMAR — They were trailed by plainclothes police officers and called “cows” by government officials. They spent four nights in prison until a public outcry prompted their release.

Aye Net and Thwe Thwe Win, the daughters of farmers whose education stopped at primary school, have rocketed to national prominence in Myanmar for their defiance of a copper mining project run by the powerful Myanmar military and its partner, a subsidiary of a Chinese arms manufacturer.

“Whatever pressure they put on us, we won’t give up,” Ms. Thwe Thwe Win said in an interview in her village on the edge of the copper mine. “I want them to shut this project down completely.”
Myanmar’s new civilian government, led by President Thein Sein, is moving swiftly toward a less dictatorial society, releasing hundreds of political prisoners and abolishing media censorship. But those changes are a world away from the everyday realities of the impoverished countryside, where two-thirds of the population live. In the shadow of the massive copper mine in Wethmay, the authorities are following the old playbook of repression and harassment.
Wethmay is one of two dozen villages affected by the mine’s planned expansion. In December, the authorities tried to force inhabitants to move by attacking the local monastery with hammers, carting away Buddhist statues and removing all the furniture and equipment from the primary school. These and other incidents prompted a series of protests and clashes with the police, some of the largest demonstrations in Myanmar since the country’s civilian government came to power last year.
Monywa copper mine.
The police have been unbending. U Tint Aung, the chief of police of Monywa, the city where the two women were jailed, lashed out during an interview by telephone when asked why the women were being followed.
“Why should you care?” Mr. Tint Aung barked into the phone. “So what if we follow them?”

The authorities also appear eager to keep foreign eyes away. During a recent two-day visit, a reporter was constantly trailed by men on motorcycles, detained by the Immigration police for an hour and told not to return to the area. His interpreter was threatened with arrest.
The case has been widely reported in privately owned publications in Myanmar, a measure of the country’s newfound freedoms. But the government has sought to curtail reporting of some its aspects. In March, a private weekly newspaper in Myanmar, The Voice, was sued by the Ministry of Mines after citing a report by the country’s auditor general that pointed to corruption in the sale of a stake in the project to the Chinese company.
At the heart of the case are environmental concerns — opposition to the copper mine is being championed by environmental groups that are concerned that surrounding farmlands will be contaminated by runoff from the mine — and more broadly the issue of land seizures.
Land grabs are a longstanding problem in Myanmar, and activists fear they may increase in the coming years in the rush to develop the country. Despite two laws passed last month that seek to clarify the land rights of farmers and policies governing vacant land, Parliament and opposition party offices have been flooded with complaints. A Land Investigation Committee, recently set up by Parliament, began traveling this week to several spots in the country to investigate reports of land seizures.
Protesting farmers illegally blocking the mining trucks.
“There has been a failure to bring justice to farmers during the liberalization period — they are still marginalized,” said Tun Lin Oo, a co-founder of the Yangon School of Political Science, an organization that researches land rights, among other issues.
The copper mine controversy appears to have resonated in Myanmar because of the strong-arm tactics used against Ms. Aye Net, 34, and Ms. Thwe Thwe Win, 29. The two women are portrayed in weekly news magazines as being locked in a David-and-Goliath struggle, two unusually courageous villagers up against a constellation of powerful forces, including the military.