BURMA: Two sharply contrasting reports on the struggle for land at Letpadaung 


The Asian Human Rights Commission has since mid-2012 closely followed, documented and reported on the struggle of farmers in the Letpadaung Hills of central Burma against the expansion of a copper mining operation under a military-owned holding company and a partner compay from

AHRC-STM-222-2012.jpgChina. After repeatedly being refused permission to demonstrate against the operation under the terms of the country’s new antidemocratic public demonstration law, the farmers began public protests, which were met with a range of repressive measures, culminating in the night time attack on encamped protestors last November. The attack received international media coverage because the police fired white phosphorous into the protest camps causing extensive burns to protestors, the majority of them monks who had joined villagers in resistance to the mine project.

In recent months two reports have been issued, in Burmese, on the struggle against the mine. The reports make interesting reading because they represent very different perspectives and understandings of the issues for the affected villagers in Letpadaung. One is the official report of an investigative commission headed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, published in the 12 March 2013 edition of the state newspaper. The other is an unofficial report by the 88 Students Generation group and the Lawyers Network, Upper Burma, issued before the official report, on 21 January 2013. Whereas the latter report represents a genuine effort to identify the causes for the opposition to the mine and speak to the human rights questions concerned with events in Letpadaung of 2012, the former is little more than an exercise in playing at politics, and an attempt to sidestep and obfuscate the questions of human rights involved through the use of “information” that conceals more than it reveals.

Although the official report is described as “investigative”, it is clear from a reading of the report’s contents that its members have either unintentionally or deliberately misconstrued their role as fact finders. The report is concerned primarily with the interests and needs of the state and specifically, with its interests and needs in maintaining good relations with the government of China and its business interests. As such, it is not really a fact-finding report at all but an exercise in public relations cast as an inquiry. Perhaps this outcome of the commission’s work should not come as a surprise, given that six of its 16 members were government officials, and one from the national human rights commission is a retired ambassador who would from professional experience understand obfuscation on human rights issues much better than documentation and reporting on facts, but that the other members of the commission, including Aung San Suu Kyi, have lent their names to a report that is investigative in name only is more than disappointing–it constitutes a betrayal of the values that they claim to represent.

The report’s authors were asked first and foremost to consider the long-term “national” interest, and throughout the report the national interest is invoked, but nowhere is it explained or queried. What constitutes the national interest is presumed to be the interest of the state–and the word used in the report to describe the national interest can also mean, quite literally, that of the state. The national interest as construed by the report’s authors clearly does not correspond with the interests of the people affected by the expanded mining operation, since it is measured only in terms of the financial benefits accruing from the mine–benefits that are swallowed up by the military-owned partner company in the project. The national interest is also construed as a matter of international relations and the vested interests of overseas investors, rather than those of citizens, since the authors’ signal their concern that closing the mine project might undermine the flow of capital into Burma, and also cause bilateral difficulties with China that might not be resolved. Thus, rather than asking questions about the nature of the “national interest” as it applies to a military-backed and owned project in Burma and situate these questions in an idiom of rights, the commission has instead relied upon imagined future scenarios whereby the interests of Burma’s army company are conflated with those of its government and those of its people to account for why the mining operation deserves to continue.

The official report’s authors also have not seriously considered the possibility that the operation might not be continued, as demanded by protestors. They largely omit from their discussion the circumstances whereby local people have been repeatedly and systematically forced off lands in the name of the national interest without regard to their interests, smothering questions of dispossession and inequality under a blanket of legalese typical of official documents produced by governments in Burma over successive periods, which pretend as if the existence of enumerated documents and legal instruments serve to give guarantees to citizens that commitments made to them will be respected later, when empirical evidence points to the contrary. They also conceal questions of power and the use of coercion behind the enumeration of data about market values of land and compensation that ignore questions of the wishes of the land’s occupants. Additionally, the authors obscure the real issues with which they ought to have been concerned with technical data and terminology parroted from official and company sources, which lend an air of scientism and give the appearance of serious research while avoiding deeper questions. Consequently, at its bottom line, the report constitutes not an investigation and fact-finding document but a cost-benefit analysis in which those directly affected by the mine’s expansion are all but omitted from the phony equations used to justify the project’s continuance.

Perhaps the worst part of the official report is its account of the police attack on the encamped protestors that left over a hundred hospitalised. Much of this account reads like a police version of events, rather than a recording of a savage assault on peaceful demonstrators. The report again resorts to a reliance on description of subsidiary details to avoid the larger questions about the use of force: concentrating on the distances between police and protestors, the flammability of materials on the camp sites, and other features of the event that serve to partially describe but not actually explain what happened and why. The abject failure of the report to deal with the true character of the attack and go to the root issues is manifest in its failure to identify who was responsible for the use of phosphorous or even ask questions to this effect. Instead, the report offers three generic recommendations on better training and reform of the police to prevent such incidents in the future; recommendations that could have been arrived at without the need for any inquiry of this sort at all. That police might learn of the limits to what they can or cannot do in such cases through effective prosecutions of police who commit criminal acts, such as firing incendiary weapons into crowds, is a concept that does not appear to have even been entertained by the report’s authors. In its closing recommendations, the report goes so far as to imply that the police did not intend to deliberately cause injuries to the assembled demonstrators, but that they had been wrong to launch the attack in the middle of the night since they supposedly could not see that they were setting people on fire, and they had lacked training on how to use equipment effectively and safely. Thus rather than serving as fact-finders, the report’s authors conclude as apologists for the agents of atrocity.

By contrast to the official report, the unofficial report on the mine is not only much more “factual” in its contents but is also unencumbered by the jargon and scientific pretence of its counterpart. In part this difference in contents reflects that lack of access that this report’s authors had to official sources–since their requests to meet and talk with officials and look at the documents made available to the members of the official commission were rebuffed. But in part it is also because their report has clarity of vision and a sense of purpose that the official report does not. It is a report written with a view to exploring, explaining and standing up for the human rights issues at stake in Letpadaung. As such, it is a much more important report, worthy of serious reading by all concerned persons, than its official counterpart.

The authors of the 37-page unofficial report interviewed over 60 locals in the Letpadaung region, and over 20 witnesses to the attack on encamped protestors. Their findings concentrate on virtually all of the human rights aspects of the events in the region absent from the official report: significant not only because they serve to reveal what has gone on there during the last year but also because they account for the strong resistance to the expansion of the mining project in the region. They observe that contrary to the “national interest” idiom of the official report, in fact the benefits of the project have thus far accrued almost exclusively to the joint venture partners in the mining project. They describe how farmers in the region have been repeatedly and forcibly dispossessed from their land through a range of coercive techniques, including unlawful arrest and detention, and dismissal from office of local officials who–cognisant of the true effects of the mine–have declined to cooperate in the systematic repression of local people. According to the report, at one point a local official warned uncooperative farmers that if they failed to cooperate with the Chinese then they risked an invasion that would leave them destitute–essentially a crude conceptualisation of precisely the same reasoning of the official report’s authors that led them to equate national interest with bilateral interests.

The unofficial report also discusses in detail the synchronised police raids on the protest camps, setting out in vivid detail not only the horrendous and unjustified manner in which the attacks were conducted, but also noting the absence of significant assistance given to affected persons in the aftermath. The accounts of witnesses leave little doubt that the police behaved as if on a war footing, attacking an enemy emplacement rather than some crude shelters designed to protect demonstrators against the elements, not against incendiary weapons. The military style of the attack, it must be added, is clearly a consequence of the last few decades of steady militarisation of the police force, throughout which time police units were treated as auxiliary forces for the army and given combat training. Consequently, under circumstances like those in Letpadaung it is hardly surprising that they behave in the manner of an armed force storming an enemy rather than a civilian force enforcing law. And although the matter may be thus stated briefly, a vast gulf separates these two methods of training and discipline; a gulf that will take a considerable time to bridge.

The unofficial report raises a series of critical questions that its authors, due to limited resources and scope and lack of cooperation from the authorities, have flagged as requiring answers. These questions include:
1. Who required of local authorities that they coerce villagers to sign documents agreeing to hand over land to the project?
2. Who issued the police with white phosphorous, and who gave the orders that it be used to disperse protestors?
3. Who will take responsibility for the injuries and other losses of the protestors?
4. How will the grievances of affected villagers be addressed?
5. How will the democratic process take into account the wishes of local people affected by the mine?

All of these questions are highly pertinent, and questions of precisely the sort that need to be asked in an investigative report on an incident of this sort, and answers for them sought. Unfortunately, the answers are not available in the official report, because the questions have themselves gone largely unasked. Therefore, we are forced to continue asking them, in the hope that those who pretend to have answers will take the questions that really need to be answered seriously. At the end of the day, these come down to questions concerning whether or not the rights and interests of affected villagers in Letpadaung–rather than nebulous expressions of the national interest–will be treated as paramount; whether or not those officials responsible for abuses of authority and for the attacks on encamped protestors will be held responsible; and, whether or not institutional changes will be affected in Burma to move the country from rule-of-law rhetoric towards legal and political designs that afford guarantees to persons affected by projects of this sort that their rights actually amount to something.