Thousands flee as Myanmar military secures Letpadaung area for Chinese workers

Residents of Sagaing Region’s Salingyi and Yinmabin townships flee raids by junta forces on the morning of December 14 (Supplied)

A military operation to secure the area around the Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Region’s Salingyi Township has forced nearly 10,000 people to flee their homes in recent days, according to local sources.

Locals reported that junta troops began stationing themselves at monasteries in the villages of Gondaw and Done Taw, both located between the mine site and the Myauk Yamar Creek to the north, on Tuesday.

This was followed in the early hours of Wednesday morning with raids on villages north of the creek, including Bein Nwe Chaung, Kyay Sar Kya and Mya Shwe Si in Yinmabin Township, residents told Myanmar Now.

“They were on the move at around 2:30am. People living in the area between the village of Lay Htan Khone and the vicinity of the mine have fled for their safety,” said a local man who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Residents of some 13 affected villages could be seen fleeing their homes in cars and on motorcycles and oxcarts before dawn on Wednesday, other sources reported.

A column of around 150 junta troops, including some stationed at the mine and others sent from Monywa, where the headquarters of the military’s Northwestern Regional Command is located, took part in the raids, the sources said.

According to a former employee of the mine who has joined the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) against military rule,  security has been tightened outside of the mine site to protect Chinese workers as they prepare to leave for the coming New Year’s holidays.

“They are providing security so they can travel from the company site to Monywa in express buses,” he said.

Military convoys and trucks carrying copper from the mine along the 30km stretch of road from Letpadaung to Monywa—which are located on opposite sides of the Chindwin River—have been frequent targets of attack by anti-regime forces.

Residents say that barriers have now been set up on both sides of the road to prevent resistance groups from planting landmines.

A villager is seen near the Letpadaung copper mine in December 2014 (EPA)

Despite security concerns since last year’s coup, the mine, which is run by a subsidiary of China’s Wanbao Mining and the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, Ltd, a military-owned conglomerate, continues to operate, according to the CDM worker.

“It’s not fully operational, but they can’t shut it down completely, because the machines will break down if they don’t keep using them,” he said.

It is unclear how many Chinese nationals are currently working at the mine, but prior to the military takeover in February 2021, there were at least 300, according to the CDM source.

In April, a coalition of resistance groups active in the area issued a statement demanding the closure of the mine and calling on workers to join the CDM. 

As tensions grew, the military launched clearance operations that saw the murder of at least five local civilians.

In July of last year, the US State Department imposed sanctions on Myanmar Wanbao Copper Mining, Ltd and other companies involved in the mining project for providing “revenue and/or other support to the Burmese military.”