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Tense standoff at Myanmar copper mine is latest in series of land disputes

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YANGON, Myanmar — Villagers refusing to leave their homes for the expansion of a Chinese-backed copper mine in northwestern Myanmar remained in a tense standoff with security forces for a second straight day Tuesday, with two reported wounded.

The confrontation, which left one woman dead Monday when guards and police fired at the protesting villagers, is the latest in a string of land disputes since a nominally civilian government was elected in 2011 and accelerated opening up the economy to foreign investors.

Han Win Aung, an activist, said about 1,000 police and security guards and more than 200 Chinese workers at the Letpadaung mining project have surrounded several villages where residents refused to leave.

He said two villagers suffered gunshot wounds Tuesday morning, though his account could not be independently confirmed. Neither police nor mining company officials were immediately available for comment.

The massive project, a joint venture between a Myanmar military-controlled holding company and China's Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd., drew international attention two years ago when police forcefully dispersed protesters, injuring more than 100 Buddhist monks. Many suffered severe burns from smoke bombs that contained white phosphorus, a substance not generally used to contain civil unrest.

PHOTO: Myanmar police officers walk to provide protection to construction of a fence on farmland extending onto the Letpadaung copper-mine, Monywa in northwestern Myanmar, Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014. Villagers protesting their eviction for expansion of a Chinese-backed copper mine in northwestern Myanmar continued a standoff with security forces on Tuesday, with several reported hurt a day after their confrontation left one woman dead and 20 other people wounded. (AP Photo)
Myanmar police officers walk to provide protection to construction of a fence on farmland extending onto the Letpadaung copper-mine, Monywa in northwestern Myanmar, Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014. Villagers protesting their eviction for expansion of a Chinese-backed copper mine in northwestern Myanmar continued a standoff with security forces on Tuesday, with several reported hurt a day after their confrontation left one woman dead and 20 other people wounded. (AP Photo)

The state-run Myanma Ahlin daily reported Tuesday that one villager was killed and 20 other people, including 11 policemen, injured in Monday's melee when police fired shotguns several times to disperse a crowd of villagers trying to stop an attempt to fence off land for the mining project. It said some villagers fired slingshots.

A public relations officer from China's Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd., a partner in the mine, expressed sorrow for the death of the villager. Cao Desheng said that most villagers in the area had agreed to move out to make room for the mining project.

"We have made amazing progress in building trust with the community but we are so sorry that this incident has happened," Cao said.

Villagers say thousands of acres (hectares) of farmland have been seized to allow for the mine's expansion. Critics claim the mine causes environmental problems.

Work at the mine was temporarily halted and the mining contract renegotiated so that millions of dollars went toward community development projects and to pay compensation to villagers. Although production was resumed after the company paid compensation to some villagers, others refused to take the money and insisted that they would hold on to their land.

Khin San Hlaing, a lawmaker from the opposition National League for Democracy party, scolded the mining company for continuing to try to fence off the area Tuesday, and said it should stop all work and meet with villagers to resolve the problem.

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PHOTO: Myanmar police officers walk to provide protection to construction of a fence on farmland extending onto the Letpadaung copper-mine, Monywa in northwestern Myanmar, Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014. Villagers protesting their eviction for expansion of a Chinese-backed copper mine in northwestern Myanmar continued a standoff with security forces on Tuesday, with several reported hurt a day after their confrontation left one woman dead and 20 other people wounded. (AP Photo)
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