MONYWA, Myanmar – In a virtually unprecedented political phenomenon, hostile villagers confronted opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi during the second day of a trip to northwestern Myanmar to explain why she supports continuation of a mining project opposed by many local residents.
In talks with villagers, Suu Kyi failed to persuade her listeners to agree with the conclusions of an official panel she headed that the national interest was best served by allowing continued operation of the Letpadaung copper mine, to encourage foreign investors to help the sagging economy.
At one point, residents barricaded their village in Monywa township with thorny brush and allowed Suu Kyi to enter only when she had shed some of her police escort and accompanying journalists.
Her unwelcoming reception was virtually unprecedented for the much-honored heroine of the country’s pro-democracy movement. In the past, mobs organized by the military had tried to intimidate her, but most of her countrymen regarded her as practically a saint.
Now that her National League for Democracy party is no longer an embattled David fighting the Goliath of a military government, but rather a competitor in the electoral politics of a fledgling democracy, Suu Kyi’s responsibilities have become more complicated.
Last weekend, her party began a restructuring process for a 2015 general election in which Suu Kyi will face opposition from the army-backed party of President Thein Sein on one flank, and from hard-core anti-military activists on the other, as well as from ethnic-affiliated parties.
“This copper mine incident is not really the critical point of Daw Suu’s political career,” said Yan Myo Thein, a former student activist and political analyst. “Public support will decline slightly, but there may not be a grave impact. She has taken a lot of risks as a politician, but the effects will have to be watched closely.” Daw is a term of respect for older women.
However, one of her closest lieutenants, veteran journalist Win Tin, said Suu Kyi, 67, should heed the feelings of Monywa’s residents, and that her failure to do so spurred anger and opposition from many quarters.
“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi may have her own good intentions, but she has failed to listen to the sentiments of the villagers,” said 86-year-old Win Tin, a co-founder of her party, who like Suu Kyi was detained for years for his political work. “Money cannot always appease the people, because sometimes it is their pride and love for their hometown that will prevail over money.”
The villagers in the Monywa area would once have been Suu Kyi’s natural constituency, downtrodden farming people tired of oppressive military rule that failed to deliver prosperity. And not all the locals were disenchanted Thursday. After a day of confrontations, as she arrived at the Monywa hotel where she was staying, a crowd of about 100 people greeted Suu Kyi with flowers, shouting, “We support you.”
But the day had been a rough one for her.
Suu Kyi’s commission said honoring the mining contract was necessary to maintain good relations with China – a Chinese company is the joint venture partner in the project – and to maintain the confidence of foreign investors whose help is needed to power economic growth.
Those seeking to stop the project contend that the $997 million joint venture deal, signed in May 2010, did not undergo parliamentary scrutiny because it was concluded under the previous military regime. They say the mine causes social and environmental problems, and would desecrate their beloved mountain landscape.
Suu Kyi failed to change the minds of many locals, who were also upset that her commission whitewashed the actions of police who broke up an anti-mine protest in November. The use by police of smoke bombs containing white phosphorous resulted in scores of protesters, mostly Buddhist monks, suffering severe burns from the nighttime raid.
In its report made public Tuesday, the commission faulted the police force for failing to understand how the smoke bombs worked and recommended that they receive riot-control training, but failed to hold any officials accountable.
At Hsede village, a hotbed of opposition to the mine, villagers on Thursday set up barricades of thorny brush and refused to let Suu Kyi’s police escort and many reporters enter. Suu Kyi spent more than an hour talking with the angry protesters – most of whom had not read the report – but failed to win them over.
Many villagers ran after her motorcade as it left, shouting, “Stop the project.”
She encountered more anger at Tone village, where hundreds of furious residents shouted, “We want our Letpadaung mountain.” In tears, women blamed Suu Kyi for the recommendation to continue the project and expressed regret for supporting her, saying they had harbored high hopes that her commission would call for shutting down the mine.
Suu Kyi’s efforts to calm the crowd by explaining the potential benefits were in vain.
“Whether she can upgrade our living standard or not, we want our mountain. Even if they give many jobs to us, we don’t want to be the servants of the Chinese,” said Nyo Lay, 50, referring to the mine’s operators. “They took our land and will earn a lot. It’s hurtful that the money they give to us is from what they get from our own land.”
She said she lost her 10-acre plot to the project, and now hires herself out as a farm worker, earning less than a dollar a day.
Before leaving Monywa, Suu Kyi reflected on the villagers’ reaction, saying it was not a matter of whether they made her feel bad.
“They want me to do what they want. I simply said no,” she told reporters. “Anyone engaged in politics should have the courage to face animosity. It is not right to engage in politics to win popularity.”