Authorities arrested a dozen women Monday in northwestern Burma who held a protest against a controversial copper mining project during prayers in a pagoda, prompting a larger demonstration calling for their release.
All of the 12 women were wearing similar clothing in protest of the Monywa Copper Mine, located in Sagaing division’s Salingyi township, according to one of the women, who spoke with RFA minutes before she was detained.
“Ten of us got off the ferry and quickly went to the [nearby] Sutaungpye pagoda. Three of us were from Wetmhe and seven from Shwehle,” the woman said, referring to villages whose residents claim their land was unlawfully seized for the mining project.
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.
“After we paid homage to the Buddha, about 30 security police followed us,” she said, adding that police apprehended them after closing all exits at the pagoda compound. “We had no way to get out."
Residents said that two villagers from Monywa who joined the 10 in the protests were among the detainees.
About 1,500 residents from Monywa, including members of the All Burma Student Union and activists from Burmese government watchdog Open Society, gathered in front of the local police station on Monday, demanding the release of the 12 women.
Among the 12 held was Thet Thet Win from Wetmhe village, who is a leader of the movement against the copper mine project, said one protester named Aung Ye Kyaw.
“The police said, ‘We can arrest you—get in the car.’ And they went with them peacefully,” Aung Ye Kyaw said.
The police said they would release the 12 only after the large group of protesters outside the police station dispersed.
“But we said we will only leave if the 12 are released,” Aung Ye Kyaw said.
He alleged that township Chief Kyu Yin tore up a protest poster the demonstrators were holding “but we protesters are demonstrating peacefully, so we didn't react to that.”
Kan Shwe, a member of Open Society, said that as of 6:00 p.m. local time Monday, all 12 women were still in custody.
"They came to pay homage to the Buddha and they were taken to the police station because of security concerns. Now we all are demanding their release,” he said.
“[The authorities] said they would release 10 of them, but we demand all 12 to be released."
Protesters said that due to a recent mass protest at the copper mine, local authorities were no longer allowing boats or ferries to travel to Monywa from villages that were affected by the mining development. They said the lack of transportation has created problems for workers who have to commute to the town each day.
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.
Villagers say the mining companies have illegally confiscated more than 8,000 acres (3,237 hectares) of farmland from 26 villages in Salingyi since 2011.
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 Ingjin Naing and Khet Mar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.