Police in northern Myanmar opened fire on villagers angered by the reopening of a controversial China-backed copper mine, leaving at least seven injured, eyewitnesses said Friday, as protesters demanded authorities dismantle security checkpoints in the area, among other conditions.
The villagers had attempted to deliver supplies via a frequently used route to a monk-led protest camp in opposition to the Letpadaung mine in Sagaing region but were blocked by a police cordon, sparking the confrontation.
Local residents have refused compensation offers for land confiscated for the mine and area monks say controlled explosions at the site have damaged a nearby Buddhist temple since Chinese project operator Myanmar Wanbao Copper Mining Limited resumed work in October.
The mine had been closed for about a year prompted by a violent crackdown on protests last November.
Sources told RFA’s Myanmar Service that “seven villagers were injured after police opened fire on protesters [Thursday] night” and that at least one person was in critical condition after receiving a wound to his left chest.
They were unable to confirm whether police had fired live ammunition or rubber bullets at the protesters, which reports said numbered around 200.
The sources said that those who had been injured in the shooting were afraid to go to the hospital for treatment because they believed they would be arrested.
‘Fired into the crowd’
The Irrawaddy online journal reported that prior to the clash, authorities had told villagers who were trying to deliver supplies to the protest camp to return home and that when they refused three people were detained.
It quoted Ko Myat, a resident of Southern Moe Gyo Pyin village, as saying that as the confrontation became more heated, police trying to disperse the protesters fired indiscriminately into the crowd and hit seven people.
“We do not know whether they used live rounds or rubber bullets. They just fired into the crowd,” he said.
Ko Myat said that a protester named Soe Pyae Aung had been “seriously injured in his chest” and was unconscious, and that “others were injured on their arms and legs.”
The Irrawaddy said that images posted on social media after the incident showed at least two protesters with “large bleeding bullet wounds.”
It cited villagers as saying that police had forced journalists who were present to delete photographs and video files of the incident.
The report also referred to an account of the incident published on the Ministry of Information’s Facebook page which claimed that villagers had attacked police with makeshift weapons during the protest, and that nine police, including two officers, had been injured in the clash.
The ministry account said that villagers had first attacked a police outpost, throwing stones and using slingshots, and that police used riot gear to disperse the crowd. It did not mention authorities firing ammunition of any kind.
The Associated Press reported that police had fired rubber bullets at the protesters, quoting a lawmaker from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, and that the crowd had responded with slingshots, injuring the nine police officers, based on an interview with a local monk.
A report by China’s official Xinhua news agency said that in addition to the nine police officers, eight protesters had sustained injuries in the clash, which it said began when around 80 villagers “stormed the outposts of the security force … forcing [authorities] to fire a number of warning shots to disperse them.”
Villagers held a new protest on Friday with a fresh set of demands for authorities in the aftermath of yesterday’s clash.
Kyaw Win, a resident of Southern Moe Gyo Pyin, told RFA that “hundreds of people” from Northern, Middle and Southern Moe Gyo Pyin, as well as from Sete village, had joined in Friday’s protest.
“We demanded five points including the withdrawal of police checkpoints in the area, the release of detainees who protested against the project, an end to the brutal tactic of opening fire on protesters, for police to stand alongside the people, and for Wanbao to stop causing fights between the police and the people,” he said.
Villagers said that authorities allowed Friday’s protest to proceed unhindered.
Residents calling for a complete halt to the project have staged regular protests against the project in recent months, resulting in frequent standoffs with police.
Officials have allowed the Wanbao company to resume operations without fulfilling requirements set by a parliamentary commission that reviewed the project, they complained at protests this month.
The parliamentary review commission, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, had recommended earlier this year that the project be allowed to continue with safeguards and higher compensation offered for confiscated land.
But residents have said the new rates are still too low to make up for the loss of their farmland and livelihoods, refusing the offers and allowing a September compensation deadline to lapse.
The commission’s inquiry, prompted by a national outcry over the brutal police clampdown that injured dozens of anti-mine protesters last November, also resulted in a revised deal for the mine, which provides a greater share of profits to the Myanmar government and immediate communities.
Reported by Khin Pyae Son for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.