Myanmar is rich in mineral resources and has sought to increase investment into its extractive industries since the transition towards a market-based economy in 2011. The Monywa copper mining complex, comprised of the Letpadaung and the Sabetaung and Kyisintaung (S&K) mines, is Myanmar’s largest copper mining project. It is co-operated by the Chinese company Wanbao Mining, the military and the government of Myanmar (see project details). As several reports by civil society organisations have shown, the mine has caused massive human rights concerns over evictions and use of violence against protesters, as well as concerns over environmental destruction affecting local communities [1,2,3,4]. A strong movement of protesters in alliance with civil society organizations are opposing the mine [5,9].
The social impacts of the mine have been devastating, as two extensive reports from Amnesty International documented [1,2]. Forced evictions occurred first in 1996, following the Joint Venture agreement with the Canadian company Ivanhoe Mining, which first operated the mine. After Ivanhoe divested from the mine in 2010, Chinese Wanbao Mining took over and started to develop the Letpadaung mine in 2011. Subsequently, large human rights abuses were caused by the government as well as the involved companies through forced evictions of thousands of villagers, in absence of any adequate consultation, consent or compensation [1,2]. In total, ca. 2746 hectares from 30 villages were grabbed by the company  and religious sites were destroyed . Four villages - Zeedaw, Saedee, Kandaw and Wet Hme – had to be completely relocated . While the company claims to have conducted community consultations, several villages were excluded from his process and Amnesty International found that these claims were false. Proposed compensations schemes were characterized by coercion to accept .
The project’s environmental impacts were poorly managed and have led to severe consequences for the health and livelihoods of people living in nearby villages [1,2]. The mine is located on the flood plain of the Chindwin River, an area prone to earthquakes and floods, which can lead to toxic spills from mining waste. Among the documented impacts was a tailing spill in November 2015, when mining waste leaked into people’s fields at Wet Hme village and destroyed their crops. No clean-up or compensation for crop losses was undertaken by the company. Soil samples taken during 2016 show elevated levels of metals, particularly arsenic, copper and lead . The health and environmental damages result not only from the mining site and its inadequate waste management, but also from the emissions of the Moe Gyo sulphuric acid factory that is part of the Monywa complex and that supplies the mining sites with acid. An increased number of children born blind were reported in relation to the factory impacts . Villagers continuously asked for relocation of the factory and achieved the support of local authorities who denied issuing a new license to the factory in May 2016. However, the factory continued operation based on a higher-level license from the Ministry of Industry .
Large protests followed the forced evictions of 2011 and villagers mobilized the Monywa mining complex through peaceful demonstrations [1,5]. They set up protest camps, conducted protest marches, sent petition letters, and blocked the paths of trucks at the construction site . Farmers also continued to plough the land to be acquired by the company - a common form of protest in Myanmar . Some demonstrations reached more than 1,000 people, and were joined not only by villagers, but also by monks, activists, and students from Yangon and other cities. Parallel demonstrations in Yangon were organized, for instance, during the visit of US President Obama. Several civil society groups across the country supported the protests [2,4,5,9].
The protesters have faced strong repression, intimidation, violence and criminalization [1,2]. They said that around 400 security police staff were stationed near the protest camps set up in 2012 . On November 29, 2012, about 500 monks and 50 other protesters who refused to leave the protest camps were violently attacked by the police and the company who used grenades containing incendiary white phosphorus. The use of white phosphorus is against international law and has caused dramatic injuries [1,2]. Over 100 people were severely injured and some face lifelong disability . In November 2012, the Letpadaung Investigation Commission was established by the Myanmar government, chaired by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to assess the impacts of the Monywa project. The commission found a series of flaws and made several recommendations to improve the situation, which were however not adequately addressed by the company [1,3]. Many villagers also protested the shortcomings of the report: while it acknowledged the use of white phosphorus, it did not call for a punishment of responsible police officers .
The conflict escalated in December 2014, when the Wanbao company bulldozed villagers’ crops to extend the project area. This sparked large farmer protests and clashes with the police, during which a woman, Daw Khin Win, was shot and killed by the police . Following this incidence, the company announced the suspension o fits extension plans and an inquiry team was formed by the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC), which highlighted the police’s failure leading to injuries. The commission called for an investigation into the death of Daw Khin that was confirmed to be caused by the shootings, however, their recommendations were not pursued . While the officials involved in the violent clashes during December 2014 were not held accountable, villagers who peacefully protested have been subject to criminalization, repression, intimidation and violence. Some face charges over defamation, unlawful assembly, or trespassing company property according to Section 144 of the criminal procedure. The charges entail both prison time and fines .
Protests intensified again in 2016, when copper production started at the Letpadaung mine and when the company announced that the formerly suspended extensions plans are still pursued [1,8]. The plans to expand the mining area for another 800 ha will put further 141 families at risk of forced evictions and loss of farmland. Thousands of people face the risks of potential environmental damages . As of early 2018, human rights concerns and environmental issues remain without adequate improvement and the damages caused so far have not been adequately addressed. Affected villagers, activists and international organisations call for a halt of the giant copper mine until all concerns are addressed .