LETPADAUNG TAUNG, Burma — Last February, a local government agent approached village headman U Thein with an offer: $600 to “lease” a large tract of communal rice paddies that needed to be cleared for an army-owned company and its Chinese partner to expand a copper mine in this sun-baked swath of northern Burma.
When Thein, 54, refused, he was arrested and thrown in jail. In his absence, bulldozers showed up in the pre-dawn hours with armed guards who threatened violence if anyone emerged from their homes.
Thein figures that the annual loss of income from the seizure is about $66,000 and, nearly one year later, says his village has yet to be compensated.
“The money is temporary; the loss of land is permanent, for generations to come,” he said.
Land-grabbing, a scourge of rural communities during the dark years of military dictatorship, endures in the new Burma. While sanctions are over and Western leaders have encouraged investment in the former pariah state, a heap of cases suggests that well-connected business interests are systemically taking advantage of the poor and uneducated to position themselves for big profits.
Burmese officials contend that some acquisitions are necessary to increase productivity and entice foreign investors ready to enter one of the world’s last virgin markets. Critics argue that heavy-handed seizures have intensified, testing the new reform-minded government and its leverage over a military with long-standing ties to China.
“Burma’s least-advantaged citizens are still getting steamrolled across the country, losing their land to powerful elites and their international partners, and facing abuses when they stand up to exercise their human rights,” said Matthew Smith, a Burma expert with Human Rights Watch. “The same government that is getting praise internationally is sometimes violently pushing aside communities who happen to live on top of valuable resources.”
While the dominance of the former military regime is no longer, two new land laws passed last year have faced heavy criticism for the broad power they allow the government to seize land in the national interest. The Asian Human Rights Commission told the United Nations that Burma was at risk of a “land-grabbing epidemic” if the laws are not amended.
Reports of land confiscation now stretch from the remote southern coast and northern border areas linked by oil and gas pipelines, to urban centers in the heart of the country where smaller industrial projects are usurping fertile agricultural lands.
In Letpadaung, a copper-rich area west of Mandalay, four of 26 villages have been razed and communities have lost more than 7,800 acres to the mining project. Some residents were moved to government-built resettlement camps; others say they were duped into taking money for short-term use, only to learn that they had forfeited their land entirely.
Out of habit, no one dared speak out. But amid a gathering tide of reforms, student organizer Ye Yint Kyaw, 27, said he became convinced in April that the “moment was right to take a chance” and rally angry residents against the project, a joint venture between the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH) and China’s Wanbao Co.
The protest initiative, he explained, was fueled in part by President Thein Sein’s order in September 2011 to suspend construction on the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam, another Burmese military-Chinese venture, in the face of public pressure over its social and environmental impact.
A peaceful protest camp began to swell outside the gate of the Chinese company’s compound. Then, on Nov. 29, familiar methods were deployed: in a midday crackdown by local authorities, hundreds of protesters were attacked by truncheon-wielding police who beat and arrested anyone in their path. Tear gas bombs left dozens of monks hospitalized.
In the aftermath of the violence, condemnation by the U.S. State Department, area monasteries and rights groups yielded an apology from the government as fresh protests ensued in major cities. An independent commission led by Aung San Suu Kyi was tasked with making recommendations on the future of the project by the end of January.
A spokesman for the UMEH and Burmese government officials declined to comment until the commission’s findings are released.
China, for its part, is determined not to see a repeat of Myitsone, calling any halt to the Letpadaung project a “lose-lose situation” in an editorial that ran in the Global Times, a Chinese government tabloid. It added: “Only third parties, including some Western forces, will be glad to see this result.”
For now, the digging goes on. On a recent afternoon, company guards looked on as Chinese workers in jumpsuits and conical hats cleaned up the broken protest camp, flanked by fenced-off concrete barracks and mechanical equipment. A red warning sign reminded everyone that martial law was in effect.
A once-verdant farmland turned moonscape stands as a testament to what will become of Letpadaung if the expansion is completed. Itinerant workers mined the barren earth for handfuls of what copper dust remains.
In the nearby village of Kankone, longtime residents alleged that mining chemicals from an acid factory relocated to the edge of their community have poisoned drinking water and remaining crops, causing a surge in health problems. Several children living a stone’s throw from the factory suffer from blindness and birth defects.
Although no scientific test results have been made public, a sense of fear persists. “We are scared to have more children; this land is not pure anymore,” said Aung Soe, 40, a peanut farmer.
At a shaded monastery farther along the road that runs past the mine, about 30 farmers took part in a free workshop on land rights by a dapper Mandalay-based lawyer, Mying Thain. Privately, he was cynical about the fate of Letpadaung, noting the extent of Chinese political pressure after the Myitsone debacle and remarking that the commission led by Suu Kyi, in the end, has no legal authority.
“The law here still favors military-run businesses and their cronies, full stop,” he said. Until judicial reform and the rule of law are seriously addressed, he added, “there will be no guarantees for farmers.”
Most of his audience had been informed of a pending takeover of their land but had yet to be evicted. What should we do in the meantime? asked one man.
“Keep farming,” said Mying Thain, with a defiant smile.
Others simply no longer have a choice. Kywak Ni, 60, a lifelong wheat farmer, was transferred with his family last year to one of four resettlement camps around Letpadaung. His eyes bloodshot from drink, he grumbled that his roof leaked and his vegetable patch was too small.
During the meeting, a truck full of men in plastic helmets suddenlypulled up to pick up his son, now a security guard for the Chinese mining company that helped get him evicted.
“What choice do we have now?” Kywak Ni said. “Refusal was out of the question.”
Motlagh reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.