Nearly 20 people were injured Wednesday after police in central Myanmar’s Mandalay region fired rubber bullets and tear gas into a crowd protesting construction at a coal-powered cement plant that is operated as part of a joint venture between a local firm and a Chinese partner.
Residents of Kyaukse district’s Patheingyi township began their protest against the Alpha Cement Plant near Aungthbyae village on Tuesday evening, demanding compensation for land they say they lost when an 18-foot-wide road was built as part of the project, and urging authorities to address an influx of hundreds of Chinese employees who are working at the site.
Moe Lin, the assistant chief of Aungthbyae village, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that protesters had blocked vehicles owned by factory operator Myanmar Conch Cement Co. Ltd. from passing through the village, and early on Wednesday morning, police moved to forcibly disperse the crowd.
“They started the crackdown around 4:30 a.m.,” Moe Line said, adding that police fired “rubber bullets and tear gas” at protesters, and he had been shot in the arm.
“Seventeen people were injured. One man was shot seven times and left in critical condition.”
Injured protesters were being treated at the village clinic, he said.
During the confrontation, police arrested a resident of Aungthbyae named Min Naing, Moe Lin said, adding that after villagers demanded authorities release him within one hour, police arrested another villager and a reporter for Channel Mandalay TV named Nanda, who was livestreaming the protest on Facebook.
Yan Myo, one of the injured protesters, told RFA that he and others had been shot “because we staged a protest against the company.”
“We were retreating [as the police moved forward] and heard them say, ‘Shoot straight at that guy,’ and shortly after, I was hit in the chest,” he said.
A resident of Aungthbyae named Myint Khaing said some of the protesters set four vehicles and part of the factory property on fire.
“They said they would set things on fire if the police didn’t release Min Naing, but the cars were already torched when we got there,” he said.
“Some bad elements exploited the situation,” he added.
A heavy police presence had restored calm to the area near the plant by Wednesday evening, but villagers were continuing to demand that the project be scrapped and those facing charges be released.
Calls to Nyunt Lin, chief administrator of Patheingyi township, went unanswered on Wednesday.
Police Commander Brigadier Win Bo of the No. 3 Police Division, who oversees police in the area, told RFA that an investigation is being made into the protest incident, but suggested that police had followed procedure with their response.
“Actions were taken in an orderly manner—police can’t act outside the law, and we follow procedures and orders when we respond to incidents to ensure things don’t get out of hand,” he said.
“[The officers] were given proper instructions. We don’t know whether they fired or not—the incident just occurred and negotiations with protesters are ongoing.”
“Legal action will be taken” against those in custody and anyone involved in arson, Win Bo added.
The project to upgrade Kyaukse’s No. 33 Cement Plant from 400 tons to 5,000 tons per day of cement production capacity was granted to the Myanmar Conch Cement Co. Ltd.—a joint venture between Myanmar’s Myint Investment Group and China’s Anhui Conch Cement—in 2015, during the administration of former President Thein Sein.
Construction began at the site in December 2017 and Myanmar Conch Cement renamed it the Alpha Cement Plant.
Three farmers were jailed about 10 months ago following earlier protests over road upgrades for the plant, while a fourth—a farmer in his 70s—is on bail awaiting trial. At least 17 villagers have been charged with violating Myanmar’s Peaceful Assembly Law since the project began, despite having obtained prior permission to hold protests.
In addition to frustrations over loss of land, Myint Khaing said, residents are worried about their safety after some 500 Chinese nationals were sent to Aungthbyae village to work at the cement plant site, beginning around four months ago.
“The [Burmese] workers initially came from Myint Investment but then were joined by Chinese workers to become Myanmar Conch employees,” he said.
“About 500 Chinese now work at the plant near our village. I don’t know if they are here legally or not. Some can’t speak Burmese and we are worried because they are constantly spending time in the village.”
Villagers have called on local authorities to meet to discuss the concerns of local stakeholders, but have received no response.
RFA was unable to reach plant officials for comment on Wednesday.
Reported by Nayrein Kyaw and Khemani Wn. Translated by Nandar Chann. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.