A prominent Myanmar activist has been sentenced to two years in prison over her role in a protest against the China-backed Letpadaung copper mine, her lawyer said Thursday, as opposition to the controversial project continues to fester weeks before operations resume.
Activist Naw Ohn Hla’s jailing by the Monywa city court in northern Myanmar’s Sagaing region came as hundreds of local villagers marched against the mine to mark the nine-month anniversary of a brutal police crackdown on protesters at the site that prompted the mine’s suspension.
The project is set to resume at the end of September under a renegotiated deal that gives government a larger share of the mine’s profits and offers local residents better compensation for their land.
But with a month left before a Sept. 30 deadline, whole villages in the area are continuing to refuse compensation for their land, calling instead for a complete halt to the project.
Local demonstrations against the mine continue unabated, with hundreds marching from villages Thursday and some 150 demonstrators marching Tuesday in the nearest city of Monywa.
'Disturbing public tranquility'
Naw Ohn Hla, who boycotted her own trial this week, was detained along with nine other activists at one such protest earlier this month after police forcibly broke up the demonstration.
She was sentenced Thursday for “disturbing public tranquility” and faces another trial for protesting without a permit, her lawyer Robert San Aung said.
“She was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment this morning under Article 505 (b) at the Monywa court,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“We will appeal for her step by step.”
Article 505 (b) of the penal code prohibits spreading statements that cause alarm or induce others to commit an offense against the state or the public.
Robert San Aung said the appeal would be based on the grounds that Naw Ohn Hla was taken into custody before a warrant had been issued for her arrest.
She was taken into custody hours after she had argued with local police who had refused her ninth application for a protest permit, he said.
The nine other women have been released on bail after all ten were charged under the controversial Law on Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession for protesting without a warrant. Section 18 of the controversial law, criticized by rights groups, carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a fine.
Naw Ohn Hla, a longtime member of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and former political prisoner under the former junta regime, had been held earlier this year for protesting in Yangon without a permit.
Thursday’s protest march from Ton village to Htantaw village near the mine marked nine months since the Nov. 29, 2012 crackdown in which dozens were injured—some with chemical burns from white phosphorous used by police to disperse the crowd.
Widespread public anger sparked by the crackdown prompted the government to form an inquiry commission headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, which in March recommended the project be allowed to continue.
It also recommended that compensation for local residents’ land be offered at “current rates” ---higher than those decided when the project originated under the country’s former military junta regime.
Compensation still 'too low'
But residents say they will continue to refuse the current offers because they are still too low and they want a complete halt to the project.
Activist Mar Mar Cho, a local resident from Ton village, told RFA that one of the demands of Thursday’s marchers was to seek an end to the attempts by the inquiry commission’s report implementation committee to “force” residents to accept the compensation by the deadline.
State media reported earlier this month that residents have until Sept. 30 to accept the compensation, which is 1,200,000 to 1,500,000 kyat (U.S. $1,240 to $1,550) per acre for lands taken over by the mine.
Residents from some 11 villages in the area decided at a meeting shortly after the announcement that they would refuse the offer.
“All villagers from the Myogyopyin, Zeetaw, and Sete groups of villages—a total of 11 villages—have decided not to accept the compensation,” Aung Myo Tan of Myo village told RFA after the meeting.
Local farmers, who have complained of environmental concerns about the mine harming their land, were meeting with officials from the Implementation Committee to discuss compensation issues, he said.
“If they don’t pay proper compensation, we are going to plant on our lands,” he said earlier that week.
“We get about 700,000 kyat [about U.S.$720] a year from planting crops on one acre of land. We are losing our lands forever. The compensation they pay is not at a proper rate.”
A total of 6,900 acres of lands in 26 villages are eligible for compensation according to the inquiry commission’s recommendations, state newspapers said earlier this month.
Recommendations 'not in the people's interest'
Ma Sanda, an activist from Aletaw village, said residents wan to see the inquiry commission’s report rescinded because it is “not working for the people’s interest.”
Residents have also demanded that action be taken against security forces responsible for the use of phosphorous in the November crackdown, as well as against those who “violently” raided protesters at a local monastery in Zeetaw village earlier this month.
Residents are also calling for a halt to the project, the release of those detained for working to stop it, and the withdrawal of arrest warrants against anti-Letpadaung activists.
They also want a withdrawal of an emergency designation making areas in the area off-limits, according to Ma Sanda and Mar Mar Cho.
Officials announcing the revised contract for the mine at the end of July said operations at the mine would resume in two months.
The contract was updated to give the Myanmar government 51 percent of its revenues, in an apparent bid to assuage public anger by giving the nation a share of the profits.
Chinese company Wanbao, which operates the mine, is now entitled to 30 percent of the revenue and the Myanmar military-backed Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEHL) to 19 percent.
The new terms also stipulate that two percent of net profits from the project go toward corporate social responsibility with a focus on immediate communities.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.