Burmese authorities have arrested at least six activists and are searching for four others who organized protests at the site of a China-backed copper mining venture, which villagers say had been set up on their illegally confiscated land.
The government has also ordered protesters to leave the Letpadaung Copper Mine's premises in northwestern Burma by midnight or face legal action.
Moe Thway, who helped coordinate the protests on Monday and is now on the run from police, said authorities moved in to arrest the leaders after the size of the protests had swelled to six camps around the site in Sagaing division’s Sarlingyi township.
The six activists who were arrested—all of whom are former political prisoners—were later taken to Insein Prison in Rangoon, he told RFA’s Burmese service from an undisclosed location.
“I was told that they were taken to Insein … Many people who protested [Monday] were arrested as well,” Moe Thway said, although he was unclear whether they had later been released.
“We are trying to connect with others, but we don’t know exactly what will happen next.”
The mining project in the Letpadaung mountains is owned jointly by the Burmese military’s Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd. and Wan Bao Co., a subsidiary of state-owned Chinese arms manufacturer North China Industries Corp. (Norinco).
Moe Thway said that 10 people who protested at the mine site near Monywa on Monday were facing charges for their actions and that six of them had been taken to police stations for questioning.
“[The authorities] asked me to come to a police station as well. I am one of those 10 who were charged, but I was unable to go there because of security reasons,” he said, without elaborating.
“When I went home after the protest, police cars followed me. I ran away to avoid arrest.”
Wai Lu, one of the protest organizers who was arrested Monday following the protest at around 10:00 a.m. local time, spoke to RFA by phone from a police station where he was questioned before being taken to Insein Prison.
“I was told that I was charged under Act 18 at the Kyutdata Police Station and Pabetan Police Station,” he said, without providing details on the charges.
“Under Act 18, I can contest [and post bail for] the charges by myself. I am still contesting other charges for protesting before this one as well.”
He said that the others who had been arrested Monday, including a woman named Naw Ohn Hla, were held for similar reasons and would likely be given the right to contest the charges against them.
Order to disperse
According to a report by the Associated Press, by Tuesday night local time, Burmese state television had broadcast an announcement ordering villagers and other protesters to abandon the six camps they had set up at the mine or face “legal action.”
The announcement said that operations at the mine had ceased since Nov. 18, after protesters first protested in the area.
The AP reported that some villagers had begun to leave the mining site after authorities read out the order to leave the area, citing a protester. He said that at the height of the protest some 1,000 people, including at least 300 Buddhist monks, had been present at the camps.
The monks and around 50 villagers remained at the main camp near the offices of the Chinese partner in the mine.
The announcement said that parliament had decided to form a committee to investigate the situation at the mine, but could not start its work until it resumes operation.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said she will visit the area on Thursday to hear the grievances of the protesters, who charge that the mine developers have illegally confiscated more than 3,200 hectares (8,000 acres) of farmland from 26 villages without providing adequate compensation.
China’s ambassador to Burma has said Beijing will stop backing Wan Bao’s development of the mine if the project does not benefit Burma.
Last year, Burmese President Thein Sein cancelled a plan to build the Chinese-backed Mytisone dam in northern Burma’s conflict-ridden Kachin state that was to provide hydroelectricity to China, after mass opposition among locals.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.