Six activists arrested for their role in protests against a controversial copper mine in northern Burma were released on bail on Tuesday, but will face trial on charges of inciting public unrest.
The six freed from Insein Prison in Burma’s largest city Rangoon had helped organize demonstrations against the China-backed Letpadaung copper mine near Monywa city in Sagaing division.
Four of the activists—Naw Ohn Hla, Myo Chit, Shan Ma, and Wai Lu—had been held since Nov. 27 after a protest in Rangoon a day earlier calling for an end to the mining project.
The other two, anti-mine protest leaders Moe Thway and Aung Soe, were taken into custody Dec. 2 at another demonstration in the city following a brutal government raid on protest camps at the mine site on Nov. 29 that sparked public outcry.
The court has not yet set trial dates for the six, who face a possible fine and up to two years’ imprisonment under Article 505 (b) of the penal code, which prohibits spreading statements that cause alarm or induce others to commit an offense against the state or the public.
Moe Thway, an activist from the Rangoon-based Generation Wave prodemocracy group, said after his release from Insein that the charges against him were unfair and that he would contest them.
“We just protested peacefully, so charging us under Article 505 (b) is not appropriate,” he said after his release from Insein.
“We didn’t do anything related to overthrowing the government and didn’t do anything related to fighting the government or the people.”
He warned that punishing activists for peaceful protest would make the public lose trust in the government, which has been carrying out political reforms since the former military junta stepped down two years ago.
“This kind of action under unjust laws causes doubt among the people that they [the government] are reforming the country, and is weakening the people’s trust, I think. They shouldn’t do this.”
Naw Ohn Hla said the other protest activists would be contesting the charges too.
“We are going to contest the charges under Article 505 (b),” she told RFA’s Burmese Service.
“We couldn’t post bail last week, but the authorities let us post bail this week at Kyauktada Police Station. I was released from Insein Prison on bail of 1 million kyat [about U.S. $1,200],” she said.
Their release came a day after prominent former monk Gambira, a former political prisoner previously jailed for his role in the 2007 monk-led Saffron Revolution movement, was freed on bail after his rearrest drew international concern.
Gambira, who was taken into custody on Dec. 1—the day before Moe Thway and Aung Soe—and was also held in Insein Prison, had been detained in connection with earlier charges from February.
But after his release, Gambira told RFA that authorities had likely held him because they wanted to keep him from participating in the support campaign for the victims of the police crackdown on mine protesters.
Last month, after protesters—including local villagers, monks, and some activists from other parts of the country—refused government warnings to leave the camps they had set up at the site, security forces staged a predawn raid on the camps, using smoke bombs, water cannons, and tear gas to disperse protesters.
Public outcry after the crackdown, in which authorities have said at least 99 monks and 11 other people were injured, prompted the government to form an inquiry commission to look into the future of the mine.
The project is a joint venture between 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).
Villagers have said that they do not want pollution from the mine to destroy the area and that authorities had confiscated some 8,000 acres (3,000 hectares) of farmland from 26 villages in the Letpadaung hills to make way for the mine.
Since the raid, monks and activists have led demonstrations in Rangoon and cities and towns in northern Burma, calling for the release of those detained in the protests and for a full government apology for the brutal crackdown.
In Mandalay, the biggest major city near the mine, monks have planned a large demonstration condemning the government’s treatment of the anti-mine protesters on Wednesday.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.