Updated at 4:30 p.m. on 2012-09-14
Around 300 villagers held a second day of protests in northwestern Burma Tuesday demanding the release of four activists in police custody and calling on authorities to shut down a copper mining project they say led to the unlawful confiscation of their land.
The villagers gathered around the local police station in Sagaing division’s Salingyi township in protest of the Monywa Copper Mine and to insist that authorities release Wai Lu, a member of a Rangoon-based activist group who was detained on Sept. 1, and three female protesters, a participant told RFA.
The women, identified as Thwe Thwe Win, Phyu Phyu Win, and Aye Net, were part of a group of 12 taken into custody by police after holding a prayer protest against the mine project on Monday. The other nine were released early Tuesday following protests by around 1,500 people.
"We are shouting our demands: Release [them] immediately,” the protesters shouted on Tuesday in front of the local police station.
“Stop the unjust arrests! Stop the copper mine! We are around 300 strong and we are from the villages."
When villagers refused to end their protest Tuesday, authorities responded by trying to push them away from the station with a police car, which one witness said resulted in injuries to the protesters.
“Three protesters were injured when a police car backed up roughly towards the protesters today,” the witness said.
Abuse in detention
San San Hla, who was among the nine women released from police custody early Tuesday morning, joined her fellow villagers as they continued their demands against local authorities and the mine developers, who they say have illegally confiscated more than 8,000 acres (3,237 hectares) of farmland from 26 villages in Salingyi since 2011.
The project developers are Wan Bao Co., a subsidiary of state-owned Chinese arms manufacturer North China Industries Corp. (Norinco), and Burma’s army-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holding.
"Our village of Wethme is destroyed and our monastery has closed down. We haven’t had religious services for the last four months,” Ma San San Hla said, referring to their eviction to pave way for the mining project.
“When they forced us to move out, only half of us complied."
She said that she and the other 11 women had suffered abuse at the hands of police Monday while in custody.
"They put Thwe Thwe Win into a cell. Then they pulled my hair and brutally assaulted me … The female police officers are also brutal," she said.
At one point in the interview on Tuesday, another protester took San San Hla’s phone and told RFA that she could no longer talk because she had been injured during the protest.
“San San Hla is in shock and had to lie down because a police car drove fast into the crowd,” the protester said. “She can't talk to you now.”
Kyi Toe, another among the nine who were released, told RFA that seven of them from Shwehle village were allowed to leave the police station at 2:00 a.m. local time on Tuesday.
"I don't know what happened to them, as we were separated [while in custody]. I was never hit, but I understand that they were beaten and also had their hair pulled,” Kyi Toe said.
“[The police] only wanted Aye Net and Thwe Thwe Win,” she said, referring to two of the women who have acted as leaders for the villagers in their protests against the mine.
She said that the group had demanded that all 12 women be released together, but that authorities would not comply.
“We said we wouldn't go without them. We wanted all 12 of us to be released together,” she said.
“We don't know what their purpose was for only releasing some of us.”
Tuesday’s demonstration marked the latest in a string of protests by villagers who say they were bilked out of their farmland by the Monywa mine project developers with the support of the local government.
Last week, hundreds of security forces stormed the copper mining site in search of land rights activists who helped organize earlier protests by 10,000 villagers demanding the return of land seized for the project.
The police arrived at the Monywa mine late in the evening of Sept. 6 but were fended off by hundreds of demonstrators armed with sticks and knives who were guarding the area.
Tensions have risen in recent weeks since Wan Bao has continued digging at the site and dumping waste soil on the confiscated land despite a request to suspend work and enter negotiations.
Villagers have been protesting near Wan Bao's offices since August to demand adequate compensation, the return of confiscated lands, a stop to forced relocations, the reopening of locked monasteries, and an end to the dumping of waste on their fields.
Reported by Khet Mar and Thuzar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that Wai Lu was detained Sept. 1, not Sept. 8.