More than 10,000 villagers in northwestern Burma demonstrated Wednesday, burning effigies and demanding the return of land they said was illegally confiscated by a mining company in a rare mass protest.
They marched from the site of the Monywa copper mine, located in the Latpadaung mountain range in Saigang division’s Sarlingyi township, but were stopped by more than 200 government security personnel and company officials, said one female villager.
"The police circled around us. They blocked the path to Pathein-Monywa highway so that we couldn't cross the road,” said the villager, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, and who said that the protesters had marched for about one mile before they were blocked by authorities.
She said that protesters then burned in effigy three coffins to display their opposition to laws that enabled the authorities to impose curfews as well as a Chinese company Wan Bao Co. and military-backed firm Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd, which are jointly developing the mining venture.
“This is our land and it was unjustly taken,” she said.
“More than 10,000 people have gathered to show our dissatisfaction. There are more than 200 members of the security forces and company officials here too."
According to villagers, authorities looked on but did not intervene while participants burned the effigies to ashes.
Also taking part in protests were members of the Student Union of Mandalay, they said.
After burning the coffins, protesters gathered signatures for a petition to be sent to higher authorities in an attempt to stop the copper mine project.
Villagers say that Union of Myanmar Economic Holding and Wan Bao Co., which is a subsidiary of China North Industries Co., illegally confiscated more than 7,800 acres of their farmland from 26 villages in Sarlingyi township since the partners began mining copper in 2011.
Some 500 villagers have been protesting near the Wan Bao Co. offices since August to demand adequate compensation, the return of confiscated lands, a stop to forced relocations, the reopening of locked monasteries, and end to the dumping of waste on their fields.
Wan Bao recently told journalists that it had already paid 5,200 kyat (U.S. $60) in compensation per acre of confiscated farmland in April 2011, but the villagers say that they wished to maintain land they have farmed for generations in order to earn a living.
Tensions have risen in recent weeks as the company has continued digging at the site and dumping waste soil on the confiscated land despite a request to suspend work and enter negotiations.
Residents staged an earlier protest in August calling for a halt to the mining project, a stop to pollution caused by factory waste, and protection for the local environment. Nearby Kyay Sin and Sabae mountains have reportedly been destroyed by copper mining.
On Aug. 31, rights activist Wai Lu, who had been campaigning on behalf of the villagers, was arrested by police in Myingmu township—also in Saigang division—on his way to Rangoon. His family members said they intend to sue local authorities for kidnapping as they have not been informed of his whereabouts.
Copper mining in the region began in 1980 through joint ventures between the former Burmese Ministry of Mining-1 under the former military regime and various investors, including Canada-based Ivanhoe Mines.
Reported by Thuzar for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.