Hundreds of local villagers opposed to a controversial Chinese-backed copper mine in northern Burma staged a protest march on Friday to demand the release of three demonstrators detained in clashes with police.
The three were detained Thursday after police shot and beat protesting farmers and activists in the first major violence surrounding the mine near Mount Letpadaung in northern Burma’s Sagaing division since the authorities brutally suppressed mass demonstrations in November last year.
On Friday, activists said a group of 500 protesters set out on a march to the Nyaungpintha police station to call for the release of the trio, but were stopped by some 300 security forces, protesters said.
“They blocked our way with guns and shields,” local resident Zaw Naing told RFA’s Burmese Service.
“We were protesting to call for the release of the three detained activists who were arrested yesterday,” he said.Protesters had been heading to the police station from Ton village near the copper mine and were stopped near Wethmay village.
The protesters also demanded an end to the mine and permission for farmers to return to work on lands they say were illegally confiscated by the mining project—a joint venture between the Burmese military's Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL) and Wan Bao Company, a subsidiary of a Chinese arms manufacturer.
Thursday’s clashes broke out after security forces moved in to stop farmers from plowing fields in their bid to reclaim the land.
Police shot at and beat protesters, injuring ten, including at least one who suffered gunshot wounds, activists said.
Aung Soe, an activist from the Rangoon People’s Support Network, and two local residents, Soe Thu and Ko Sann, have been held since the clashes.
Monywa district deputy police chief Tin Tun said police had acted appropriately in Thursday’s crackdown, saying the farmers had gathered in an area that had been declared off-limits under Section 144, a provision that allows authorities emergency powers to control public order.
“I have warned them not to enter the forbidden area many times, but they didn’t listen to me and they started throwing stones at us and attacking us with sticks,” he told RFA.
“That’s why we cracked down on them according to the law.”State media reported on Friday that villagers had attacked the police officers with petrol bombs and stones, injuring 15 and prompting police to fire rubber bullets.
"Villagers attacked throwing handmade fire [petrol] bombs... and throwing stones at the security forces," the state-run New Light of Myanmar reported, according to the Associated Press.
Ko Latt, an activist from the Politicial Prisoners’ Families Network, rejected claims that the protesters had used petrol bombs.
“We had no plan for any kind of action like that,” he told RFA.
“We are just fighting to try to get back our land,” he said.
The mine project drew national attention with a brutal crackdown on protesters opposed to it last November, when police used smoke bombs containing highly flammable phosphorous to disperse protest camps, injuring dozens of demonstrators, including monks.
The crackdown prompted a government probe into the future of the mine, and last month the inquiry panel recommended that the project be allowed to proceed, despite conceding it only brought "slight" benefits to 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 some farmers have continued to refuse compensation and demand that the land be returned.
Reported by Yadanar Oo and Nay Rein Kyaw for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.