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Myanmar: Copper mine strikes raise questions

Charles M. SennottGlobalPost.com

YANGON, Myanmar – A stream of protesters, many of them Buddhist monks clad in maroon robes, trickled through the capital Monday as part of what observers here say is a growing movement against the government’s brutal crackdown on strikers at a Chinese-backed copper mining project in the northwest.

About 100 protesters carried placards and chanted a phrase that has become their slogan: “Violence is not the solution.” 

Opposition leader and Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has lent her support to the movement, visiting the strikers at the Lapadaungtaung copper mining project. The project is a joint venture by the military-backed Union of Myanmar Economics Holdings Limited (UMEHL) and a Chinese company called Myanmar Wanboa Mining Copper Limited.

Suu Kyi was elected to parliament earlier this year in elections that were widely seen as a move toward democracy in Myanmar, also known as Burma. She heads a parliamentary commission that is investigating the government’s alleged use of excessive force on the strikers at the mine in a series of clashes that began in late November.

“The commission will not shirk its responsibilities and it will hold people accountable,” Suu Kyi told reporters this week.

The labor unrest in the copper mining town is the latest example of how China’s attempts at ‘soft power’ — using economic influence to achieve its goals — rather than the ‘hard power’ of military strength, is increasingly being met with popular resistance in Burma.

Many people here and a growing number of their representatives in parliament say that China is going too far in exploiting Burma’s abundant natural resources. Via a new network of pipelines, China has siphoned vast mineral wealth and energy in the form of hydropower from dams and petroleum.

China’s aggressive business interests and how they impact Burma was chronicled last month in a GlobalPost Special Report titled, “The Burma Road: China and soft power in a new Myanmar.”

“China itself cannot do what it wants to do … Doing what one wants to do without a compromise is not democratic. Myanmar needs to try promoting democracy.” Suu Khi said.

“We must bravely put forward the truth,” she said, explaining that the findings of the commission will first be submitted to President Thein Sein who called for the body to be formed on December 1 in the wake of the violence.

On November 29, police clad in riot gear raided a protest camp outside the mining project and seriously injured 74 people, including dozens of monks, by beating them with truncheons and allegedly spraying them with a caustic liquid that has left many of the injured monks with skin burns. Several of the most seriously burned were being taken to a hospital in Thailand for treatment.

The crackdown has produced condemnation of the government from the international community and sparked a wave of small, but persistent, protests across the country in recent weeks.

Those public demonstrations have prompted a round of arrests of activists. Police officials have maintained that the demonstrations are being held without proper permits. The rising tension comes just three weeks after President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a historic visit to Burma, a diplomatic initiative that was widely viewed as a new spirit of engagement between the US and Burma.

But the strikes at the copper mine raise issues of labor rights violations and of China’s aggressive presence in Burma. This has left some observers wondering whether the government of Myanmar, which speaks of a new era of democracy and of opening to the Western world, is staying true to its word.

Kyaw Zwa Moe, an outspoken critic of the government and editor of the English language edition of the independent Irrawadday newspaper, wrote in a recent column:

“The government continues to use the threat of arbitrary arrest to intimidate dissidents. Until this is no longer the norm in Myanmar, it will be meaningless to speak of Myanmar as a democratic or even democratizing nation.”

But even as Zwa Moe was writing this strident criticism, the government was for the first time in a long time allowing his opposition newspaper, which is based in Bangkok, to publish inside Burma.

The irony that was not lost on at least one political observer here who said, “We keep taking steps forwards and then steps backwards, but the question everybody is still watching for is whether we are moving forward? It’s going to take more time to know.”