If anything, Latpadaung copper mine issue embodies the very essence of messy Myanmar politics and a plethora of the country’s struggles that are waiting to be slowly and wearily untangled. Recent decision of the commission’s report to continue mining operations in Monywa only proves that even a democracy superwoman who sacrificed 15 years of her life under house arrest cannot stay insulated from condemnation. Since its release, the report has created a clear split between groups, summoning critics who demand a complete abortion of the project on the one hand, and supporters who sympathize with Daw Su and approve the commission’s decision.
The copper mine operation has been a controversial issue since its birth. Last November, local demonstrations against the project came under the spotlight as the police used tear bombs containing phosphorus against the protestors, setting alight the latter’s camps. As images of protestors suffering burns floated on the internet, it’s inevitable that angry commentators started to question the government’s boastful commitment to reforms. Whoever is in charge of the Latpadaung inquiry commission is doomed to find him/herself in a quandary. While there have been unlawful confiscations, community displacement, and environmental problems associated with the project, shutting it down completely would also mean turning away from foreign investments that Myanmar desperately needs for its economic growth. So I empathize with Daw Suu, the chair of the commission, who has been juggling politics with morals quite unsuccessfully herself.
If you are expecting me to pick a side, dear readers, then read no further. Given the already abundant debates on the issue, I see it futile to argue at this point whether the mining operation should proceed or be stopped. Daw Suu is right in reminding us that every political decision is bound to be contentious. From building a well in a village to undertaking a billion dollar mining operation, there will always be people who agree or disagree, people who benefit more than others, and some even not at all. But it is not the point of my article to singly pick what Daw Suu said and argue whether or not I agree with her.
I think the real issue is that what seems to be missing in all the conversations in regards to the copper mine controversy is the most crucial ingredient: the people. For now, the overall impression is that Latpadaung residents are included as part of the plan only insofar as passive citizens who are no more than chess pieces to be moved around by politicians, corporate investors and development elites. My point may seem absurd given that the locals have proven to be active participants by orchestrating protests and the like. Yet this may exactly prove my point. Despite all the obvious clues, the officials have failed to see these people as citizens who have a voice and know how they want to lead their own lives (let’s not get into metaphysics here!). Instead, in a 19-minute video clip of Daw Suu’s visit to the village, we see her lecturing the local residents on how to be a good citizen.
A particular part of the video stuck with me. When the democracy heroine asked the villagers whether they’ve read the commission report that was included in the newspapers, the answer was a no. But her question soon backfired as the people responded by saying newspapers never even get delivered in their village. These few seconds of the video clip show us, first, lack of public engagement in the commission’s decision to push ahead with the mine operations. The panel’s report may have exposed that land in the area is worth 1.5 million kyat ($1730) per acre, much more than the ridiculous 5 to 80 kyat per acre that had previously been offered to residents under an outdated law. But findings such as these mean close to nothing if those whose lives would be most affected were not even part of the decision making process. Second, that the residents have not even read the commission report does not represent their ignorance but that of those in charge. It exposes a system that is only legible on paper but broken in practice.
Some observers are too quick to say that these villagers blindly oppose the mine project without even reading the report. These criticisms blithely assume that public tools and resources are widely available and accessible by everyone in all parts of the country. But who are we kidding? In a country frozen in time, where most people are deprived of basic necessities, we’d only be making a fool of ourselves if we actually believed it.
I find the locals’ continued protests over the project encouraging. Unsuccessful and overlooked they may be, but emerging from their dissents are dialogues and social platforms for new ways of political engagement. Needless to say, they cannot just carry on without having any productive results. A country still needs to keep its economy going.
The task of participation is almost impractical for a country that had been fine tuned to the Orwellian rhythm for the past five decades. But unless we remind ourselves that people make country and not otherwise, even a billion-dollar copper mine may not be pampering enough. How to reconcile such an ideal with the practical needs of the economy remains the ultimate challenge for Myanmar’s leaders.