Aung San Suu Kyi confronted hundreds of disgruntled residents in central Burma on Thursday, as anger continues to mount over her failure to oppose the development of a controversial Chinese-backed mine nearby.
The Lady drifted between utter exhaustion and rage as she argued with residents in Tonywa village following the release of her commission’s controversial report earlier this week, which said the Latpadaung copper mine project in Monywa should continue, despite widespread local opposition.
“You said you wouldn’t trick the people!!” sobbed one local. “Don’t come here Daw Suu – we feel bad for General Aung San’s name.”
Although the report called for locals to be “compensated” for the loss of their land, many have insisted that both the preservation of the mountain and the environment are equally important. But Suu Kyi only asked: “Why do they want the mountain?”
“Farmers aren’t capable of doing office work and their livelihoods are deteriorating and the religious buildings [sponsored] by the farmers are also going to be destroyed, and for that around 200 local villagers are still protesting at a camp on the Leikhun Hill,” said an angry local man. “How are you going to guarantee for their lives?”
At one point Suu Kyi asked why some protestors had not attended the town hall meeting. “They said they don’t want to see you. They said they cannot accept your report at all,” retorted the man.
When asked if the residents had read the report, he said they had but burned it immediately after.
Emotions throughout the day were at a fever pitch. Some protestors cried, while others screamed as Suu Kyi travelled to two villages near the Latpadaung mine to defend her commission’s report and consult with locals.
At one point, Suu Kyi’s security detail had to physically restrain one local and outside of Tonywa village, locals surrounded her vehicle to voice their complaints, while the opposition icon stared listlessly into the mob.
Less than a year after joining the country’s quasi-civilian parliament, the famed democracy icon has courted a series of controversies, including her silence on ethnic minority rights. But this week’s protests represent the Lady’s biggest confrontation yet with grassroots communities inside Burma.
The Latpadaung Copper Mining project is a joint venture between military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings and its Chinese partner Wanbao, which is owned by an arms manufacturer.
The project has led to the confiscation of about 7,800 acres of farmland in total and forced farmers from 66 villages in the area to relocate. In November, police used water cannons and incendiary devices to disperse protestors, of which about 100, mostly monks, were seriously burned.
An independent investigation claimed riot police had used military-issued white phosphorous against the demonstrators, but the official commission, chaired by Suu Kyi, insisted that the fire was ignited by phosphorous present in the smoke canisters. Her report also did not call for the prosecution of anyone responsible for ordering the crackdown, but rather placed the blame on “poor” training of riot police.
The Latpadaung case has helped highlight the rise in land grabs in the country. Legal experts claim Burma’s shaky legal infrastructure allows for the forced relocation and appropriations to continue unhindered. But farmers are also feeling increasingly empowered to challenge authorities, who confiscated thousands of acres of land during five decades of military rule in Burma.