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China and the Two Iron Ladies of Burma

Duration:
25 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 27 December 2012

Lucy Ash asks what the explosion in popular protest over a Chinese backed copper mine says about changes in Burma. Will this be a test case for the government's commitment to democratic reforms?

Farmers' daughters, Aye Net and Thwe Thwe Win have led thousands of villagers in protest against what they say is the unlawful seizure of thousands of acres of land to make way for a $1 billion expansion of a copper mine run by the military and a large Chinese arms manufacturer. They've been thrown in jail and they have been harassed by their own police and military, and yet they've refused to back down.

Their bravery has been celebrated by the poet Ant Maung from the nearest big city Monywa, who wrote "The struggle made them into iron ladies. This is life or death for them - they will defend it at the cost of everything."

Burmese officials and the Chinese company say the Monywa copper mine will create jobs and bring prosperity to one of the poorest and least developed nations in Asia. But the villagers complain about pollution from the mine, damage to crops and the loss of fertile land.

The villagers' campaign is backed by Buddhist monks, environmentalists and other activists from all over the country. For two weeks the protestors succeeded in occupying the mine and stopping all operations.

But on November 28th the government's patience seemed exhausted. Riot police were deployed to clear the protest camp and more than 100 people were injured. Several monks and some villagers suffered serious burns. The violent crackdown was a stark reminder that the country's transition to democracy remains fraught with difficulties. Some suspect the government acted to avoid scaring away foreign investors. Others say the brutal response shows Burma's military leaders are still in charge behind the scenes and that they are not prepared to tolerate any dissent which encroaches on their economic interests.

Producer: Katharine Hodgson

(Image of Burma)

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