Hundreds of Myanmar villagers protesting a Chinese co-owned copper mine vowed to continue their fight against the project last week despite arrests of demonstrators and orders for the rally to move.
In a show of defiance unthinkable just last year when military rule was replaced by a quasi-civilian government, locals in Monywa in Sagaing Region have staged weeks of protest over alleged land grabbing and fears of environmental pollution from the mine.
“The main thing they want is an end to the Letpadaung copper mine project,” said U Han Win Aung, an activist helping the villages, adding that between 300 and 600 people had been demonstrating around the project.
He said some 8000 acres (3200 hectares) of land had been confiscated from local farmers without consultation and in some cases without compensation.
“It is like destroying the lives of these villagers who relied on the land since they were born,” he said.
Households from four entire villages will need to move to make way for the project, which will affect people from 26 villages.
The copper mine, which is a joint venture between military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL) and China’s Wanbao company, a subsidiary of arms manufacturer Norinco, has been the subject of controversy for several months after local media reports of corruption in connection with the project.
The Ministry of Mines is suing The Voice over an article that cited an Auditor General’s Office report that apparently found evidence of misappropriation at the mine.
Meanwhile, three local women remain in custody after police arrested 12 villagers at a prayer ceremony in Monywa pagoda on September 10. Another activist was arrested on August 31 and also remains in detention.
“At noon the township police inspector locked the door from outside when about 15 female villagers were saying prayers inside the pagoda. About one hour later, the door was unlocked but all the women were arrested and forced to get into a car,” said resident Ko Thaw Zin, who witnessed the scene. “One of the women was even refused permission to go and see her sister, who is ill and in the hospital.”
Following the arrests, members of the Monywa branch of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions demonstrated in front of the main police station in Monywa, holding placards that read, “Immediately release 12 women from Wathmay and Shwehlay villages,” “The rule of law” and “Students cannot ignore the concerns of the people”.
Police tore up the placards and threatened demonstrators verbally and by brandishing batons.
“We asked for permission 15 minutes before the demonstration. We went ahead with demonstration because they didn’t respond. At first, no slogans were shouted. At about 5pm, we shouted for the women to be released within 15 minutes. Afterwards, we demonstrated by hoisting the student union flag and shouting slogans,” said student union member Ko Ye Yint Kyaw.
At about 9pm, roads were blocked with about 10 fire engines and a large number of police deployed at the city hall, he said. Nine of the women were then released.
Another demonstration took place on September 11 as troops watched on from City Hall, their weapons in the firing position.
That evening, police combed the houses of the students but most of the students had already dispersed and no arrests were made, Ko Ye Tint Kyaw said, adding that earlier on September 11, one student union member from Monywa, U Aung Myint Oo, was taken from his home by police.
“We have heard that arrest warrants have been issued against student union members. But the students are determined to proceed until those who have been arrested are released,” Ko Ye Yint Kyaw told The Myanmar Times.
Last week’s arrests come after farmers who have been displaced by the copper mine expansion protested on September 5, calling for their land to be returned.
Thousands of farmers from the 26 villages took part in the protest, beside the Monywa-Pathein Road near the copper mine, and burnt coffins representing UMEHL, Chinese investors and the section 144 order put in place in the area to quell dissent.
“We burnt three empty coffins as we believe it will help us get back our land … it will make those who confiscate our lands fail,” a farmer at the protest was quoted as saying in local media reports.