Hundreds of villagers held a protest Monday to back their persistent calls for a government probe into a harsh crackdown on protesters against a controversial China-backed copper mine in northern Burma’s Sagaing division that left more than 100 injured and was strongly condemned by rights groups.
More than 500 people marched from Ton village in Sagaing to the office of the Letpadaung mine developer, demanding an end to the project and calling on authorities to prosecute those responsible for a Nov. 29 predawn raid which saw police use smoke bombs containing highly flammable phosphorous to disperse protesters.
“It is the five-month anniversary of the crackdown on the Mount Letpadaung [protest] area,” a local resident who gave his name as Thura told RFA’s Burmese service.
“We also protested today against the invoking of Section 144 [around the site of the mine],” Thura said, referring to a provision that allows authorities emergency powers to declare an area off-limits in the interest of public order.
More than 100 protesters, nearly all of them monks, were injured in the raid, the toughest crackdown on demonstrators since President Thein Sein's reformist government came to power in March 2011.
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, while conceding that it brought only slight" benefits to the nation.
Thura said protesters also urged authorities to return land they say was illegally occupied by the mine project—a joint venture between the Burmese military's Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL) and Wan Bao Co., a subsidiary of a Chinese arms manufacturer.
Protesters successfully obtained permits to hold the demonstration, but authorities wanted the number of participants to be trimmed to 500.
“We received permission to protest from the Salingyi [township] police station and they allowed us to protest from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. We marched from Ton Village to the Wan Bao Co. compound,” he said.
“We saw police, and both military and police intelligence, lurking around the protesters and taking notes.”
Thura said that the group of protesters was made up predominantly of residents from nearby Ton, Moegyopyin, Setae, Kyautphyusai, and Zeetaw villages.
Win Tin, a farmer from Hse Te village, said protest organizers requested permission for 800 people to join the protest but were told to limit the gathering to 500, The Irrawaddy online journal reported.
Protesters told RFA that they would continue to hold demonstrations until their demands were met.
Also on Monday, around 20 people held an hour-long demonstration in front of Rangoon city hall calling for the release of three activists detained during a protest near the mine site last Thursday.
They also highlighted concerns that authorities had not released any findings about the November crackdown.
The protesters in Rangoon read aloud statements from monks of the Letpadaung area, including Ashin Pamhoutka who had assisted villagers during last week’s demonstration, and called for an end to the mine project.
Moe Thway from the 88 Generation Student’s Group, a prominent Burmese civil society organization based in Rangoon, said the government must heed the will of the people who oppose the mine.
“We are protesting to let the government know what we want. If it is a real government for the people, it needs to listen to the voice of the people,” he said.
“The current government always says that it is the people’s government and that it should be seen as different from the previous military government. But if it doesn’t want to be seen in the same way, the new government must not act like a fascist regime.”
Moe Thway said the government must also end the use of Section 144 in the Letpadaung area.
Last Thursday, three people were arrested and others injured after police shot and beat protesting farmers and activists in the first major violence surrounding the mine since the crackdown last year. A group of farmers had been plowing fields that had been taken for the project.
On Friday, hundreds of people marched from Ton village to the police station in Salingyi township, calling for the release of those detained during Thursday’s demonstration. They were forced to return home after police blocked their path and threatened to shoot anyone who continued beyond a certain point.
Local police announced over the weekend that they will file charges against eight activists who they say incited the protests on Thursday and Friday and have issued orders for their arrests.
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in a statement Monday condemned the announcement “in the strongest terms,” saying the eight activists had simply exercised their democratic rights to freedom of assembly and expression.
“The announcement by the Sagaing Region police is just the latest illustration of how far authorities are prepared to stray from the supposedly democratic path that they claim to be treading, in order to protect the interests of crony businesses and ensure continued impunity for the police in their handling of the Letpadaung mine affair,” the statement said.
“All [the activists] are doing is asking that the rights of the occupants of the affected land be respected accordingly, and that they be treated as partners in dialogue rather than as the subjects of decisions made from above, as in the days of direct military government.”
The AHRC called on the Sagaing police to retract the announcement and drop charges against the activists, release the three activists detained last week from custody, and criminally investigate those responsible for the November crackdown on the mine protesters.
Reported by Zin Mar Win, Nay Myo Tin and Kyaw Htun Naing for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.