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Library Progress stops at the Myanmar elite's door

Progress stops at the Myanmar elite's door

Progress stops at the Myanmar elite's door

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Date of publication
December 2012
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Freedom of speech will struggle to flourish in Myanmar as its economic interests are dominated by powerful neighbours...The protesters were given five minutes to leave. Police surrounded their camp close to the Letpadaung copper mine in northern Myanmar in the early hours of Thursday, armed with loudspeakers, water cannons and warnings of attack. First came the water, the force of which swept away dozens of flimsy structures used to shelter hundreds of Myanmarese angered at the damage wrought over more than a decade by the country's largest copper mine.

What came next however struck fear into the heart of Myanmar's nascent environmental movement. Plumes of fire lit up the night sky as police and riot control units shot incendiary bombs into the clusters of tents. "They fired 10 rounds; five at a time," one protester told the Democratic Voice of Burma. "And the sparks that landed on people's clothing couldn't be shaken off; they burst into flames when they attempted to do so."

Images that emerged following the crackdown showed hospital wards filled with burn victims - men, women and Buddhist monks. "I'd prefer to be dead now than suffering [from the burns] - the pain is too unbearable," a monk said.

The brutality of the incident conjures memories of September 2007, when hundreds of pro-democracy protesters were shot dead by Myanmar troops. That crackdown was congruent with the reputation of the military junta that ruled Myanmar at the time.

But 18 months into its experiment with democracy and wildly contradicting the progressive rhetoric of President Thein Sein, the attack last week has left many questioning the earnestness of the reforms. Moreover, the involvement of police, who operate under the auspices of the president, has cast a shadow over a leader preparing to accept a number of top peace awards.

The Letpadaung incident goes beyond a simple bid to stifle dissent. While environmental damage and grievances over the confiscation of 7,800 acres of land were the key focus of the resistance to the mine, in the government's eye, these protests marked the intersection at which three hugely sensitive issues meet: The public's ability to exercise freedom of speech, China's influence over Myanmar and vested military interests in the country's natural resources.

Put together, they indicate that at the core of government, there still exists the same fear over the standing of the elite that fuelled abuses by Myanmar's former rulers.

Days into the protests, Aung Min, one of President Thein Sein's top cabinet members, was caught on camera saying that the mine would stay open because, "We are afraid of China"...

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