Police on Tuesday raided a village in central Myanmar’s Mandalay region and arrested 13 residents along with a reporter for allegedly participating in a protest that turned violent against the Chinese operators of a coal-powered cement factory, a community resident said.
Roughly 20 people were injured on May 15 after police fired rubber bullets and tear gas into a crowd protesting construction work at the Alpha Cement Plant near Aungthabyae village in Kyaukse district’s Patheingyi township. The factory is operated as part of a joint venture between a local firm and a Chinese partner.
During the demonstration, villagers demanded compensation for land they say they lost when an 18-foot-wide road was built as part of the project and urged authorities to address an influx of hundreds of Chinese employees who are working at the site.
“The arrests occurred at about 5 a.m. when a couple of policemen and more than 30 men in civilian clothes [stormed] the village,” said Shwe Ohn, a resident of Aungthabyae village who was among those arrested.
“Some people ran off out of fear,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “Anyone who opposed the company has been charged.”
The villagers and the reporter from Channel Mandalay TV, who had livestreamed the protest on Facebook, now face possible jail time for their participation in the May 15 demonstration on charges of voluntarily causing grievous harm to deter public servants from performing their duties, creating mischief by fire or explosive substances with the intent to cause damage, and abetting criminal conduct, he said.
Two of the villagers and the reporter are already in police custody, while criminal charges have been filed against the others, including Shwe Ohn.
Some Aungthabyae residents met with Ye Min Oo, a lawmaker who represents Patheingyi township in the Mandalay regional parliament, to demand that authorities release those who were arrested in the village on Tuesday.
“They have demanded the immediate release of the detainees,” he said.
Ye Min Oo said he and other officials have met with four or five female villagers to interview them about the incident, but not others who are now in hiding because authorities have issued arrest warrants for them.
“I will present the [findings] to the local government, and parliament will handle it if necessary,” he said.
RFA contacted Mandalay regional police for comment, but was told that no officials were available because a meeting was in progress.
The cement factory’s Mandalay office told RFA to call back on Wednesday, while Soe Than, the regional minister for agriculture, livestock, and irrigation, could not be reached for comment.
During the protest on May 15, villagers blocked vehicles owned by factory operator Myanmar Conch Cement Co. Ltd. — a joint venture between Myanmar’s Myint Investment Group and China’s Anhui Conch Cement — from passing through Aungthabyae, prompting police to forcibly disperse the crowd, a village official told RFA in an earlier report.
Some demonstrators set four vehicles and part of the factory property on fire, according to a village resident
Though a heavy police presence restored calm to the area near the plant by the evening of May 15, villagers demanded that the project to update the plant’s cement production capacity be scrapped and that those detained by police be released.
Wirathu steps in
Two days after the protest, extremist Buddhist monk Wirathu from Mandalay’s Masoeyein Taik Thit Monastery visited Aungthatbyae village, offering to help the protesters, but they turned him down, Shwe Ohn said.
“I don’t know why and how he came to us,” he told RFA. “He came, but our villagers did not want to be involved with him, but rather stay in the clear. I didn’t meet him because I tried to avoid him. The villagers didn’t accept his donations.”
Wirathu left boxes of drinking water and packages of rehydration salt despite the villagers’ refusal of his offer of help, Shwe Ohn said.
“He also offered 500,000 kyat ($321), but the villagers didn’t accept it,” he said.
Wirathu also posted a video on social media, saying that he warned Mying Maung, chief minister of Mandalay region, about the Aungthabyae village incident.
Construction began at the site in December 2017, and Myanmar Conch Cement renamed it the Alpha Cement Plant.
At least 17 villagers have been charged with violating Myanmar’s Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law since the project began, despite having obtained prior permission to hold protests.
Three farmers were jailed in 2018 following earlier protests over road upgrades for the plant, while a fourth is on bail awaiting trial.
Reported by Aung Theinkha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.