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Letpadaung Copper Mine Project Resumed, Symbolic of Larger Human Rights Problems

By Burma Partnership  •  May 10, 2016

13173073_1234357086608441_7883708632886404158_oOn 5 May, 2016, fresh tensions erupted over the resumption of the Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Region, a project jointly owned by Chinese company Wanbao and the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. (UMEHL).  The contentious project was halted in 2012 after mass opposition and subsequently subjected to a Parliamentary inquest led by then opposition lawmaker Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 2013 , which had identified outstanding issues and produced recommendations – including compensation for crop losses, clarity over land acquisition processes, the issue of waste management, and the institution of safeguards such as Environmental and Social Impact Assessments. However, they have yet to be fully met and mining operations were commenced despite heated objections over ongoing disputes. Again, familiar patterns of abuse and tactics of repression marred the events, including the arrest of two leading women community activists Ma Sanda and Mar Cho under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law and Article 147 of the Penal Code on 6 May, 2016.

Amid heightening tensions and unresolved grievances, the project went ahead as scheduled and the site was heavily fortified by security presence in response to growing numbers of protestors. Observers feared a repeat of scenes that were reminiscent of the bloody 2012 crackdown, where poisonous phosphorous explosives were used on civilians and villager Daw Khin Win was also fatally shot by security forces. Already, ugly scenes have emerged as protestors have attempted to break through garrisons while two leading community organizers have been arrested and charged under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law, notoriously used to criminalize peaceful protestors, supporters and community members against the mining project that has created large scale forced evictions. Villagers have vowed to continue their protests despite the escalating tensions and the absence of a foreseeable solution to this impasse, which will also provide a stern test to the NLD-led Government’s bilateral relations with China.

In many ways, the troubles with the Letpadaung project are emblematic of the larger human rights struggles in the country, where the deployment of repressive laws to criminalize HRDs is compounded by lack of public safeguards, inadequate protection and inability to access or obtain justice. Coincidentally, international human rights organization Human Rights Watch rightly noted this week in a letter to the new President that the government has inherited a “legacy of misrule”, including Constitutional provisions which reserve power for the Burma Army and resist full reforms, an unprofessional judiciary which is submissive to the Burma Army and Home Affairs Ministry; decades of disregard for the rule of law; and poorly trained and unaccountable military and police forces. Undoubtedly, a stiff human rights challenge underlies this political transition. A litany of problems remain, and with such heavy odds stacked against them, the NLD-led Government needs key and reliable partners for human rights protection and governance in the country.

Separately, on 5 May, 2016, 111 national civil society organizations sent an open letter to the President U Htin Kyaw urging fundamental reforms of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC). After an evaluation of its performance in 2015 by the global governing body of national human rights institutions (NHRIs), the MNHRC was accredited with a “B” status, denoting its lack of compliance with the required normative and minimum international standards. The appraisal body took issue with its poor performance and negligible impact in the country, including the conflict-ridden and restive ethnic areas where civil war is still ongoing. The global governing body of NHRIs further chastised the MNHRC for a non-transparent and non-inclusive selection/appointment practice that allows for Executive appointment of NHRI members and ironically excludes key constituencies and intended beneficiaries such as human rights defenders (HRDs) and victims of rights abuses and violations. Incidentally, NHRIs are the only State-created organs that are subjected to such rigorous performance assessments at the international level. The signatories called for the re-constitution of the MNHRC’s leadership body, through the formalization and implementation of a merit-based, inclusive and transparent selection/appointment process of Commission members that involves the broad participation and inputs of independent rights-based civil society groups.

As the Letpadaung incident shows, the new government has to perform a delicate dance between ushering in economic development and investment dollars to revive the economy, manage tricky relations with its neighbors as well as the business and military elite, and ultimately be able to fulfil the people’s aspirations. The signs however are not encouraging. To date, no prosecutions have been made for the violent dispersal of crowds and death of Daw Khin Win. Instead, the history of swift arrests and harsh convictions of activists (including solidarity events such as the Chinese embassy demonstration) contrasts starkly with the protracted delays in securing justice and accountability.

There remain glaring deficiencies in the protection and legal framework in the country that expose HRDs as well as affected communities to massive risks and vulnerabilities. International donors and partner agencies must recognize these gaps and support the efforts of civil society in advocating for more effective protection policies and mechanisms in the country. Considerable effort and money has already been invested in the MNHRC, culminating in the passage of the enabling law in 2014. However, it is still sorely inadequate. A well-functioning MNHRC that is fully compliant with the Paris Principles – the international standards on NHRIs – is not only be a potential ally for HRDs and victims of rights abuses in the country, can play a leading role in putting human rights issues on the social and political agenda and in driving long-term change, contribute to review of laws, policies and practices and also hold the government accountable to its international human rights obligations and standards.

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