Farmers and activists protesting a Chinese-backed copper mine in northern Burma were shot at and beaten by police on Thursday in a new crackdown on protests against the project since a brutally suppressed demonstration last year.
The clashes broke out after security forces moved in to stop farmers from plowing fields on land seized by Wan Bao Company, which runs the copper mine near Mount Letpadaung in northern Burma’s Sagaing division.
At least ten protesting farmers were injured, some of them with gunshot wounds, and three others were arrested, protesters said.
“While we were plowing our lands to plant crops, the security forces came in and arrested us,” local farmer Zaw Naing told RFA’s Burmese Service.
“They cracked down on us violently,” he said, adding that one villager was shot twice and was taken to the hospital in Monywa.
The Irrawaddy online journal quoted a doctor as saying "some of the injured had received gunshot wounds."
The clashes were an echo of a clampdown on protest camps at the mine site last November, when police used smoke bombs to disperse the crowd, injuring dozens of demonstrators, including monks, and triggering a national outcry.
The crackdown prompted a government probe into the future of the mine, which is a joint venture between the Burmese military's Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL) and Wan Bao Company, the a subsidiary of a Chinese arms manufacturer.
Last month, a probe panel recommended that the mine be allowed to proceed, as it serves the economic benefit of the nation. Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who headed the committee, traveled to the area to urge local farmers to drop their protest.
But hundreds of farmers have continued to refuse compensation and demand the return of land which they say was illegally confiscated for the mine.
Some of them began plowing fields near the mine earlier this week in preparation to plant ahead of the start of the rainy season, before police arrived Thursday morning.
Ko Latt, an activist from the Rangoon People’s Support Network that has been working with local farmers to protest the mine, said the security forces came with “no warning.”
In the ensuing clashes, he said, police used what he believed to be explosives, which had caused bushes and trees to catch fire.
Zaw Naing said the clashes ended when farmers scattered out of fear that security forces would use bombs to make them leave.
“We heard a police officer shout to his forces, ‘Use bombs to crack down on them.’ We didn’t have any weapons, so we went home,” he said.
The three arrested were two local residents from Setae village and activist Aung Soe from the Rangoon People’s Support Network, Zaw Naing said.
State television reported the skirmish, saying police used rubber bullets to disperse 200 farmers, according to the Associated Press. The report said 15 police were also injured.
The chief of the local Salingyi township police station and the Monywa district administrator refused to comment on Thursday’s clashes when contacted by RFA, referring reporters to Wan Bao’s security unit.
'Problem of daily survival'
The 88 Generation Students’ Group, a prominent Burmese civil society organization based in Rangoon, denounced Thursday’s crackdown as “harsh” and said the local farmers face a struggle for their livelihood when they cannot farm land there.
“If the farmers can’t do anything in the area, they face a problem of survival, and they cannot wait until the end of the planting season,” a statement by the group on Thursday said.
“The authorities need to address the farmers’ problem of their daily survival,” it said.
It added that the group was concerned authorities there were “responding harshly whenever a problem happens.”
Reported by Nay Rein Kyaw, Kyaw Zaw Lwin, and Yadanar Oo for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.