Clashes erupted this week between a coalition of resistance forces and a junta column of 100 troops believed to have been sent to guard the office of a Chinese mining company near the Letpadaung copper mine in the township of Salingyi from the Sagaing region, according to local sources.
Letpadaung local and protest leader Myo Min told Myanmar Now that a convoy of 100 troops left nearby Yinmabin Township on May 5 and was seen the next day parked near the Yangtse Copper Co. office, ltd.
The company is a subsidiary of Wanbao Mining, which jointly operates the controversial Letpadaung mine site with the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. (UMEHL), a military conglomerate.
On Sunday evening, a four-hour battle took place between the army column and local defense forces, with resisters claiming to have ambushed and surrounded the unit around 4 p.m.
“We blocked their path from the front and attacked them from all sides. As far as we know, we had no casualties on our side yesterday,” Ko Khant, a spokesman for one of the guerrilla groups, said on Monday.
They also reportedly exchanged gunfire for around 10 minutes on Monday morning.
Myanmar Now was unable to confirm whether anyone was killed or captured by either side during the clashes.
Residents around the site of the recent fighting said they feared for their safety as long as Myanmar army troops occupied the area.
“The villagers are all afraid because [the soldiers] always fire their weapons indiscriminately whenever they enter a village,” said one resident. “People in villages in the area cannot eat or sleep well,” he added.
In April, People’s Defense Forces (PDF) in Yinmabin and Salingyi condemned mining projects run by UMEHL and Wanbao as supporting the junta, and called on company employees to quit their jobs and join the disobedience movement (CDM) by May. 5.
Myanmar’s Wanbao and Yangtse branches issued a joint statement on May 4 claiming they had been threatened by the PDFs active in the area.
The companies alleged there were ‘rumors’ and ‘baseless accusations’ about their projects and claimed to have halted mining operations after the military coup in February last year. All workers seen at the site were part of a small crew carrying out only “environmental maintenance”, the company said.
A worker at Letpadaung’s raw material processing department who is currently on strike told Myanmar Now that many miners have in fact joined the CDM, and that if operations have ceased at Letpadaung, it could be due to the participation of workers. employed in the movement.
“It is very likely that the company would have gone out of business, in my opinion. Defense forces could also carry out attacks against them while they are transporting equipment,” he said.
A member of the Blood Money Campaign, a grassroots initiative focused on removing financial support for the military council, urged Wanbao and his affiliates to pull out of the country because further guerrilla attacks could occur.
“If the Chinese government is going to collaborate with the army that kills and oppresses the people, it will not be the fault of the people when [the resistance] is starting to target investment from China,” the individual said.
“We suffer because of these projects”
Wanbao signed a 60-year contract in 2010 with UMEHL and the Myanmar government at the time to extract copper from Letpadaung.
Profits from the site are split between Mining Company No. 1, which owns 51%, as well as Wanbao, which receives 30%, and UMEHL, which claims 19%.
Wanbao’s subsidiary Yangtse now jointly operates the nearby Sabetaung and Kyisintaung copper mines with UMEHL, known as the S&K mines. Throughout the late 1990s and until 2007, they were jointly operated by No. 1 Mining Enterprise and Canada’s Ivanhoe Mines, until Canada pulled out of the initiative, according to a published study. by Amnesty International.
Three years later, Wanbao’s parent company became co-operator of the S&K mines, as well as Letpadaung, with the three sites comprising what was called the Monywa copper mining project, named after the district in which they are located. .
At the time of writing, the Yangtze gets 49% of the production profits from the S&K mines, with UMEHL claiming the remaining majority.
An October 2021 report by the Publish What You Pay transparency campaign said that in the 2020-2021 financial year, the Myanmar military could have acquired $417 million from the Letpadaung project and $187 million from the projects. of Sabetaung and Kyisintaung.
The US government hit Wanbao and its affiliates with sanctions in July last year for their operations in Myanmar with the military. In March 2021, the United States and the United Kingdom sanctioned the UMEHL for serving as the financial arm of the junta.
Locals have long opposed the Letpadaung copper mine, which has caused extensive damage to the surrounding environment and resulted in the seizure of thousands of acres of land from villagers who have reportedly been evicted without adequate compensation.
“We are suffering because of these projects,” said Letpadaung protest chief Myo Min. “The plants are dying and the acid is eating away at houses and roofs. Residents have eye problems due to air pollution,” he added, referring to the effects of the mining process.
Letpadaung was the scene of a brutal crackdown on local protests against the mine in November 2012, when police were accused of using white phosphorus against protesters. More than 100 people were injured, including people with disabilities, as a result of the violence.
Khin Yi Yi Zaw contributed to this report.