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Many locals in Latpadaung believe that the destruction of a Buddhist stupa on the site of the copper mining project is set to go ahead after the structure was deconsecrated in a 30 March ceremony.
Rumour as to the planned destruction of the religious buildings — made famous by venerated monk Ledi Sayadaw Ñanadhaja who presided over the complex almost 100 years ago — has been a major driver of local consternation towards the joint venture project, run by Chinese firm Wanbao and the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH).
The rumour abounds despite repeated government statements that the stupa and hall are to be relocated, as opposed to destroyed.
The deconsecration ceremony is the second of its kind to be held in relation to the buildings.
In February, local residents dismissed a ritual observed by high-ranking monks of the government-linked Manhana, the National Head Monks Association, on grounds that there was no local participation.
Ashin Arlawka, a monk who presides over the local Sanmyawadi Monastery in Zeetaw village, Latpadaung, was shut out of that previous ceremony.
He believes that Sunday’s event is an indication that the structures will soon be levelled.
“The ritual was observed early on Sunday morning, which means the structures can now be demolished at any point — I don’t think the site will be blown up with mines or explosives, but it may be bulldozed.”
The inability of locals to view the fenced off temple site has contributed to the uncertainty regarding its future.
Khin San Hlaing, a Burmese lower house representative of Sagaing Division and member of the parliament’s Latpadaung Copper Mining Project Investigation Commission, said the destruction of the religious structures would contradict recommendations made by the commission in its report.
“In the commission’s report we recommended that Wanbao and UMEH ensure the structures stay intact upon the relocation and to seek approval from local people before making move — it is very clear now that the operators are not heeding the recommendations,” said Khin San Hlaing.
“The responsibility for this mainly lies upon the committee that was formed to implement the recommendations in the commission’s report.”
That commission was formed after a protest by Latpadaung villagers and Buddhist monks, calling for suspension of the mining project, felt the brunt of a brutal police crackdown, which left over 70 people injured in November 2012.
The Aung San Suu Kyi-led commission recommended the publication of an environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA). Australian consultancy firm Knight Piésold compiled the report, a draft of which was released in February.
Now Wanbao is fighting off criticism stemming from information released in the draft ESIA, which states that there is “acid and metals generation arising from waste rock” which pose an “extremely high” level of risk that cannot be mitigated. This is of particular environmental concern due to the vulnerability of a high water table that exists under the Latpadaung site.
In a publicly available letter from Knight Piésold to Burmese media group Eleven, who first reported the threat, the consultancy defended the environmental integrity of the project on behalf of Wanbao:
“Knight Piésold holds the view that compliance with the environmental and social management plans, as well as the monitoring and reporting proposed in the ESIA, will limit the potential for significant issues arising from operation of the Latpadaung Copper Project.”
The Australian firm, while deflecting blame away from Wanbao, noted the sensitivity surrounding the issue of the forced relocation of farmers, who have continued protests and refused compensation en masse.
“Land compensation and resettlement and the associated provision of job opportunities are known to be key concerns to the community,” the letter reads. “A perceived failure to address these issues is strongly influencing the communities’ trust that commitments made in the ESIA will be fulfilled.
“This issue is not an issue for Wanbao alone as each of the parties in the Product Sharing Contract has a role to play in the process of land compensation, resettlement and provision of employment to those who have lost land.”
Last week, Thaw Zin, a prominent anti-mine activist was sentenced to 15 months jail for his part in past protests.