Four activists detained amid weeks of mass protests against a China-linked copper mine in northern Burma’s Sagaing division were freed on bail Friday, after demonstrators negotiated with local authorities for their release.
The activists were among thousands who have gathered in recent weeks for protests against the Monywa mine project in Sagaing’s Salingyi township which villagers say led to the unlawful confiscation of their land.
Some 3,000 people came to Monywa city near the mine on Friday to welcome the release of the three women activists— Thwe Thwe Win, Phyu Phyu Win, and Aye Net.
A fourth activist, Wai Lu, member of a Rangoon-based activist group helping organize local farmers who live near the mine to protect their land rights, was released from detention in nearby Chaung Oo township.
“Wai Lu was detained in Chaung Oo, so some of us went to get him from there,” said Kyaw Min Yu, a leader of the 88 Generation Students Group in Rangoon who came to Monywa to help facilitate the releases.
"Thwe Thwe Win, Aye Net, and Phyu Phyu Win were released from Monywa and now they are in the car with me, on the way to Wethme village,” he said as he was driving them from the detention center.
Kyaw Min Yu, also known as Ko Jimmy, met this week with the government head of Sagaing Division to negotiate the release of the four activists.
Hundreds of people had protested at the Salingyi township police station to demand their release.
At first, the Sagaing authorities said regulations required the four activists to be held until Sept. 24, he said.
But then they met with lawyers and judges, and after receiving formal requests from the detainees and guarantees from the 88 Generation Students Group, allowed the four to be freed on the condition that they appear in court on Sept. 24, Kyaw Min Yu said.
Wai Lu, who had been held since Aug. 31 when he was arrested in Myingmu township on his way back to Rangoon, said authorities had made him promise to stay away from Sagaing.
"I was released at 5:00 pm today. I had to sign a promise not to enter Sagaing region anymore,” he said.
While in detention in Chaung Oo, he was not allowed to meet with his family, he said.
“They didn't torture me, but I wasn't allowed to meet with my family or anyone. Even my cellmates lost their visiting rights because we were kept together.”
The three women activists were part of a group of 12 taken into custody after they held prayer protests.
The other nine were released early Tuesday following protests by around 1,500 people.
Thwe Thwe Win said she was on her way to see her sister Phyu Phyu Win, who was also detained, at the hospital when she was arrested.
“She was hospitalized, and actually I was on my way to the hospital to see her when I was arrested. I just cried when I saw her. Then she was with me in the cell,” she told RFA.
Tensions over the mine have risen in recent weeks since the project developer has continued digging at the site and dumping waste soil on the confiscated land despite a request to suspend work and enter negotiations.
Villagers charge that the mine developers have illegally confiscated more than 8,000 acres (3,237 hectares) of farmland from 26 villages in Salingyi since 2011.
The mine is being developed by 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.
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 Thuzar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.