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Letpadaung Crisis Takes a Turn for the Worse

By Burma Partnership  •  January 12, 2015

jpaing-irrawaddy-6-1-2015As 2014 ended seeing Burma’s reforms backsliding and the peace process stalling, Burma welcomed 2015 with many unresolved issues continuing to face people across the country.

The ongoing dispute between local villagers and the Burma Government and Wanbao, a Chinese mining company, over land grabs and environmental damage continues to rumble on as police shot dead Daw Khin Win as she was demonstrating against the controversial Letpadaung mining project in Sagaing Region. Meanwhile, the police continue to arrest and detain activists who speak out against such violence on politically motivated charges, underlining the dire need for legal and judicial reform and the complete lack of the rule of law in Burma.

Letpadaung copper mine is a joint project between Wanbao Mining Limited, a subsidiary of the Chinese arms manufacturer, Norinco, and the Burma Army company, the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited. Since an agreement was signed between the two companies in 2010, many villagers have been forcibly evicted, losing control over to pursuing traditional livelihoods on their ancestral land while environmental damage from the project has been a constant. Resistance from local villagers, activists and monks has been ongoing and the reaction of the police has been heavy handed. This is not the first time that police brutality has caused a national stir. In November 2012, police used phosphorus bombs upon attacking a protest camp, inflicting horrific burns on dozens of people including monks.

The latest violence comes after company workers and police attempted to fence off farmland without notification. As local villagers protested, police attacked and shot at them, killing 56 year old woman, Daw Khin Win and injuring others. This situation outraged the country’s democracy and human rights activists, civil society groups and political opposition across the country. Many civil society organizations and prominent ethnic political parties and armed groups issued statements calling on the Government to take due responsibility. Subsequent protests against this brutality were held in Rangoon and a few other major towns and cities, while hundreds came out to the streets of Mandalay. Police charged seven activists, including prominent woman human rights defender, Naw Ohn Hla in Rangoon under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law, a usual rouse to detain democracy activists and human rights defenders. Their trial begins this week.

This case is particularly salient for the EU, which last year committed €10 million to improve crowd control strategies of the police. Thus far, the EU has yet to release a statement condemning this police brutality despite the obvious embarrassment.

The Burma Government is keen to blame such democracy activists and human rights defenders for unrest at Letpadaung. For example the secretary of the parliamentary committee set up to resolve problems with this project stated, “We are trying to investigate who are these outsiders, organizations and activists that are inciting the villagers; the authorities are preparing a lawsuit against them. The recent incident at Letpadaung was caused by these outsiders.”

These excuses are a distraction from real issues of legal and judicial reform and the dire need for some semblance of rule of law. The killing of Daw Khin Win by the police force does not compensate those who have no means to pursue their livelihoods. The arbitrary arrest of activists demonstrating against the murder of Daw Khin Win does not bring justice to her family. Furthermore, as seen in many other examples of police violence in the past, the judicial system is so corrupt and partial that it cannot guarantee accountability. Examples of arbitrary arrest, torture and violent attacks on those standing up for their rights were a common thread throughout last year. None of these victims were able to seek redress from a judiciary that is merely in the pocket of the authorities and serves as a tool to protect those in power that commit such violence.

Thus it is imperative that the Burma Government adopts steps to reform the judiciary to become independent and effective as well as show the political will to hold members of the security services accountable. Rule of law in Burma has been shown again to be painfully absent. The international community, especially the EU, must pressure the Burma Government to implement such steps that create an environment that protects the rights of the people and their communities rather than using oppressive laws to stifle the voices of those who work to protect these people and communities. This is especially significant in 2015, a year that may prove to be crucial for the reform process given the general elections. These steps include amending or repealing the raft of laws that do not comply with international human rights standards and are used to suppress human rights activists and civil society, as well as reforming the judiciary to ensure independence from the Government or the Army. Otherwise, we will see more tragic cases such as that of Daw Khin Win in 2015 and national reconciliation will be further and further away from being realized.

On behalf of the Burma Partnership team we wish you all the best for 2015 and we hope it will be a positive one for the people of Burma.

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