Hundreds of security forces stormed a copper mining site in northwestern Burma on Thursday in search of land rights activists who helped organize protests this week by 10,000 villagers demanding the return of land seized for the project.
The police arrived at the Monywa mine, located in Sagaing division’s Salingyi township, around 11:00 p.m. but were fended off by hundreds of demonstrators armed with sticks and knives who were guarding the area, demonstrators said.
They were searching for four members of a Rangoon-based group helping organize local farmers who live near the mine to protect their land rights.
"They came in to arrest Ko Han Win Aung, Ko Aung Soe, Ko Thaung Hteik, and Ko Zaw Tin, but they haven't gotten them yet,” Aye Thinn, a member of the group said, speaking to RFA from the mine area Thursday night.
The demonstrators had organized a surveillance system to watch for police and hid the activists in the village’s monastery, she said.
“We knew they would come, so we stationed lookouts by the gates. When the security forces entered from the east gate, people there called us over the phone. So we haven’t let [the four activists] out for now and we are keeping them inside the monastery.”
“Right now, 500 people are waiting with sticks and knives, both men and women,” she said.
The raid on the mine site followed a demonstration on Wednesday by 10,000 villagers who marched and burned effigies to demand the return of land by two companies jointly developing the mine—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.
Demonstrators held signs in English, Chinese, and Burmese with slogans such as “Stop work on the mine immediately” and "Wan Bao, get out of here!"
Villagers say the 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.
Some 500 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.
One member of the Rangoon-based activist group, Wai Lu, was detained on Saturday and is being held at the Salingyi police station.
His family members have not been allowed to visit him yet, said the 20-member group, which was founded in June to promote the rights of workers and farmers.
Members of the Student Union of Mandalay are also taking part in the protests.
Reported by Moe Thu Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.