Forced relocation of locals underway near Letpadaung mining project

Despite complying with the military’s demands to vacate the land, villagers have yet to receive the promised compensation of 1.8m kyat per acre

After military forces fenced off a village near the Letpadaung copper mining project in Sagaing Region, longtime residents began submitting on Friday to the military’s demands that they move. 

In the first week of August this year, an army column of some 300 troops used barbed wire fencing to enclose Wet Hmay, located near a copper mining project in Salingyi Township, Sagaing Region and operated jointly by the Myanmar military-owned Myanma Economic Holdings, Ltd. (MEHL) and two Chinese companies. 

The Chinese companies are both subsidiaries of the Chinese state-owned company Wanbao Mining, Ltd. (Wanbao): Myanmar Wanbao and Myanmar Yangtse. The military’s demands that the villagers relocate were made despite the fact that the mining project’s operations have ostensibly been suspended since 2021.

The old Wet Hmay village historically consisted of around 100 households before the previous civilian administration, which was later ousted in the coup of February 2021, offered villagers compensation to move off their land and make way for the mining project. 

While most families chose to accept, some 35 families rejected the compensation and stayed in the old village. 

Most of those families were still living in the old Wet Hmay village when the military approached them at the beginning of this month with an ultimatum to move to a new Wet Hmay village, located a mile away, east the Salingyi-Nyaungpingyi road. 

The military said they would not be accountable for the consequences incurred by anyone who refused, giving the villagers a 10-day window to relocate to a new Wet Hmay village, located a mile away, east of the Salingyi-Nyaungpingyi road. 

Residents said they made preparations to move because they felt threatened by the junta forces. 

While some of the 35 families still living in the old village were able to leave when the military fenced it off earlier this month, 42 people remained inside, including residents with limited mobility due to age.  

Out of concern for the security of the people trapped in the enclosure, the village’s other residents decided to comply with the company’s demands to relocate to the new village. 

A villager from the old Wet Hmay village said they had found it difficult to hire carpenters to help them dismantle their houses for the move. 

“Some carpenters dared not come. We have to start moving today with the help of the few carpenters we were able to hire,” the villager said on Friday. 

The MEHL-Wanbao joint mining venture has offered 1.8m kyat (US $850) per acre in compensation—the same rate offered under the civilian administration in 2013—but Wet Hmay residents said details of the offer remain unclear.

“Nothing has been paid yet. They just said it would be one-time compensation. But now it’s as if they’re postponing the compensation to some future date, or as if they’re going to arrange bank books for us. The reality is that we haven’t received anything,” the villager said.

The mining venture reportedly paid only a few hundred thousand kyat each to some households, saying it was reimbursement for moving costs. 

“The money they gave was about 700,000 [US $330] , or 400,000 kyat [US $190] for some cases. But, they haven’t compensated us for the land yet. The expenses incurred for repairing and relocating—that’s all we’ve gotten,” the villager said. 

A Myanmar Yangtse company building, near the Letpadaung copper mining project, belonging to one of the Wanbao subsidiaries operating the copper mining project jointly with the Myanmar military-owned company MEHL (March 2013) (EPA) 

In mid-2022, local resistance groups called for a halt to the copper mining project, saying it provided no benefit to local residents. The mining venture’s only response was that the project’s operations had been temporarily suspended since February 2021.

However, residents of the Letpadaung area say the MEHL-Wanbao joint venture is now clearly preparing to restart work on the project. 

Residents also said that Wanbao had not only housed and fed junta forces on their compounds in Sagaing Region, but also made their vehicles available for junta troops to use in offensive operations against neighbouring villages. On several occasions, junta troops stationed in the company’s compounds reportedly fired on nearby villages at night using heavy weapons. 

Anti-junta resistance groups in the region claimed the Wanbao-owned subsidiaries have both provided support to the same junta forces demanding extortionate payments from travellers on roads near the mining project, shooting at civilians without provocation, and carrying out arson attacks on villages in the area. 

Members of the Salingyi Township People’s Defense Team, which is commanded by the publicly mandated National Unity Government, have warned that they will take punitive actions against Wanbao if the company does not stop cooperating with the military council.

In February of this year, the military council declared martial law in eleven townships of Sagaing Region—which is known as an anti-junta resistance stronghold—including Salingyi Township, where the Letpadaung mining project is located.

MEHL and Wanbao have both been subject to sanctions by the United States government since 2021.

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