Residents of Aung Tha Pyay Village in Mandalay Region are restive and implacable. They do not want a coal-fired cement factory operating beside their houses.
Unable to get the sympathy of the regional government to their cause, up to 200 Aung Tha Pyay villagers are planning to March to the administrative capital of Nay Pyi Taw to plead their case.
“We are going to suffer the ill effects of the factory all our life because it is being built too close to our village. Even before the factory runs and while it is still under construction, villagers have started to suffer from its adverse effects,” U Shwe Ohn, a villager, said. Located at Dahat Taw village tract in Mandalay Region’s Patheingyi township, Aung Tha Pyay is an agricultural village with over 1000 residents.
The Myint Investment Company secured approval of the Alpha Cement project plant in June 2015, at the thick of transition to the new government.
U Ye Min Oo, the MP for Patheingyi township in Mandalay Region, said the residents learned about the project only after the groundbreaking ceremony in July last year. The event was led by U Soe Than, regional minister for Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation.
The Ministry of Mines allowed the company to use 617 acres in Taung Kan village tract of Madaya Township for a 25-year period, from 2015 to 2040. But the project is to be constructed next to the Aung Tha Pyay village and the villagers opposed it.
They are demanding the scrapping of the project.
The villagers noted that once operational the cement plant could damage not only the environment but also adversely affect the health of the people.
They noted that the project area includes wells and natural springs. The shady trees at the sides of the village road had been cut down. The villagers are worried about the Sasana infrastructure being destroyed as well.
“There are nine mountains, nine caves and nine rows of tamarind trees which have been there since ancient times,” said Ko Tun Naing, a village youth leader. “We had to give up the wells and lakes for the project. Who will take responsibility for the consequences?”
The villagers, likewise disputed information that reached the chief minister that some 5,000 people expressed support for the project while only 50 villagers are against it.
“The signatures gathered were fake. Even when all the people in our villagers are counted, the population would not reach 5000,” said 80-years-old village elder, U Than Sein.
The 617 acres project site has been brought by the company from the villagers at the cost of between K1.6 million (US$1087) and K8 million per acre.
“During that time, the villagers sold the lands due to lack of general knowledge about the project and threats were made (against those who would not sell their lands). Those who did not know anything only received K1.6 million per acre.
People with close ties to the company got K8 million for one acre of land,” said Daw Kyi Than, a local who sold 15 acres of land.
Dahat Taw Village Tract, where the company is located is comprised of Mya Kan Thar village, Tha Yet Kine village, Aung Tha Pyay village, Pyi Thar Yar village. The villagers built a 19-feet long road by themselves in 1993 and used that road to go to their work.
The government promised to expand and extend the road to about three kilometers, but the company said that it would pave a concrete road so the government allocated the fund to another rural road project, said U Ye Min Oo, another Aung Tha Pyay villager.
While the company expanded and extended the village roads as promised, they have found it too dangerous to use the roads as heavy equipment and trucks are using it.
“The new road is different from the previous village road. We cannot say if it is a special road that linked each of the villages. It is too dangerous as the trucks of the company are getting in,” said U Shwe Ohn.
He said that in April the villagers took it upon themselves to stop company trucks and heavy equipment from using the road.
“We ban the vehicles starting from April,” said U Shwe Ohn.
Since then, no construction cars from the company has entered the village, thus stopping the construction work.
Police swooped down on Aung Tha Pyay village and arrested some people who objected to the project and those who barricaded the village road.
“There are losses due to suspension of the project. We will ensure the project continues,” Mandalay Region Security and Border Affairs Minister Colonel Kyaw Kyaw Min said.
The Village Development Department sued four farmers for preventing the public from using the road.
“There are stone pillars as a signature of road boundary. We are expanding the road for the development of villages but we cannot accept fencing on the road boundary. So, we prosecuted them,” said U Zarni Aung, regional Minister for Transport and Communications.
Chief Minister Dr. Zaw Myint Maung just said a team was formed to scrutinize the project.
Aung Tha Pyay village residents remained adamant about their demand to scrap the project. They pointed to the environmental and health problems that beset villages which hosted other cement factories in Mandalay Region, especially in Kyaukse city.
A huge banner at the village public hall read: Who will take care of the future of Aung Tha Pyay village?