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Myanmar: human rights defenders sentenced for protesting against the Letpadaung Copper Mine

July 14, 2013   ·   1 Comments

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In 2010 7,800 acres (3,156 hectares) of farmland had been confiscated from local farmers for the Letpadaung Copper Mine project. Protests began in 2011 when farmers said that their fields were being contaminated by waste from the mine. On the 8th of July three human rights defenders, arrested while taking part in the protests, were sentenced to eleven years and six months and two years and six months respectively in prison.

Mr. U Aung Soe, a member of Yangon People’s Support Network has been sentenced together with Mr. Ko Soe Thu and Mr. U Maung San, two villagers who also took part in the protests against the mining project. The Burma Partnership and Assistance Association for Political Prisoners informed about their sentences, stating that it is the first time since the so-called democratic reforms have taken place in 2011 and 2012 that human rights defenders receive such long prison sentences.

After their arrest on the 25th of April their whereabouts remained unknown for 30 days, while they were tried before court but behind closed doors. They had no access to a lawyer prior to the 1st of June when they received an initial sentencing. Subsequently, the defendants had to attend more hearings, again without the right for their lawyer to be present. When their lawyer appeared at the hearing on the 8th of July, the three had already been sentenced. This clearly violates the human right to a free trial of the defendants as well as the right to a lawyer during the hearings.

Mr. U Aung Soe received an additional 10 years of imprisonment, convicted of causing alarm to the public, insulting a religion, and voluntarily causing grievous hurt to deter public servants from their duty. His sentence was therefore increased to eleven years and six months. Mr. U Maung San und Mr. Ko Soe Thu were sentenced to two years each, resulting in a total sentence of two years and six months in prison.

The disputed Letpadaung Copper Mine project situated in the Northwest of the country is a joint undertaking between the Chinese Wanbao Mining Company and a military-owned company of Myanmar, the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL). In November 2012, there was a police crackdown that resulted in over 100 people being injured. Despite the violence against peaceful protesters, the protest camps were reopened in December 2012.

The government, as a result, formed a commission of inquiry headed by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to determine how the crackdown occurred. But the report, which was published on 12th March failed to address the accountability of the police officers in charge of burning down the protest camps and injuring over 100 protesters, mainly Buddhist monks. Subsequently, the government offered financial compensation for the farmers that accused the mining company of contaminating their fields. Most of them turned down the money, instead calling for an end to the mining project.

For the farmers still living in the 26 villages in the  mining project zone, agriculture is their only livelihood. Therefore, a contamination of their fields is commensurate to depriving them of their income. The findings of the government report suggest that the project should continue despite the protests and accusations of environmental destruction. In a press release, Wanbao Company stated that they ‘will continue contributing to the sustainable development of our local community and of Myanmar as a whole.’

As the situation presents itself now, there is no solution in sight to end the protests against the Letpadaung Copper Mine project. The government, as one of the major beneficiaries of the mining project, is trying to end the protests by paying money as compensation for the police crackdown, while the police themselves continue to arrest human rights defenders on weak grounds and deprive them of their right for a lawyer and a fair trial.

 Photo Credit: Burma Partnership

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Stephanie Rutz

Stephanie recently graduated from King’s College London with a MA in International Relations, focusing on Middle Eastern politics and complex political emergencies. Her areas of interest include democratisation and especially the implementation and working manner of electoral systems in developing countries and countries in post-conflict transition. Furthermore, she is interested in human rights issues around the world, such as the implementation of human rights policies on a national level and in combination with democratisation.

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