RANGOON and MONYWA—While armed police are not normally visible around the heart of Rangoon, there has been a marked increase in security personnel ever since last week’s brutal crackdown on anti-copper mine protesters in central Burma.
Burmese activists Moe Thway, Aung Soe and former monk Gambira remain in custody after being arrested by police on Saturday during a rally outside the Chinese Embassy. While the precise motive for their arrests remains unclear, their continued detention seems like an effort to quell escalating future protests.
Gambira, who was previously jailed for four years following his leading role instigating the nationwide monk-led Saffron Revolution democracy uprising of 2007, has reportedly been transferred to Rangoon’s notorious Insein Prison along with Moe Thway and Aung Soe.
The raid in Monywa, Sagaing Division, early on Thursday morning saw dozens of peaceful demonstrators—the vast majority monks—severely injured, and led to solidarity protests around the country. Armed police can now be seen around key areas of the former capital including Sule Pagoda, Trader’s Hotel, Bogyoke Aung San Market and City Hall.
The latest arrests come after a protest by around 30 monks at Sule Pagoda on Friday. Public campaigns among Burmese activists have continued against the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL), also known as U Pai Company, which runs the copper mine as a joint venture with China’s Wan Bao Company.
Activists have urged people to stop drinking Myanmar Beer, which is produced by U Pai Company in conjunction with Singapore’s Asia Pacific Breweries. Internet users spread messages via social networks such as Facebook to encourage a boycott of products made by U Pai.
U Pai Company was established by the Burmese military for small and medium-sized commercial enterprises and industries. Between 1990 and 2007, U Pai formed 77 fully fledged firms, according to “Building the Tatmadaw” by Burmese defense scholar Maung Aung Myoe.
Wan Bao Company is a subsidiary of the China North Industries Corporation arms manufacturer which reportedly supplies weapons to the Burmese military. Wan Bao and U Pai began operating the controversial mining project last year, but it was Canadian company Ivanhoe Mines that originally started working in the area in 1998.
Fierce anti-China sentiment has been on the rise since last November with protesters demanding a complete shutdown of the copper mine citing illegal land confiscations, deforestation and toxic waste seeping onto farmland. More than 7,800 acres from 26 villages nearby the Letpadaung mountain range were seized for the project.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is now leading a 30-member investigation team formed by the government to probe the recent violence in Monywa and advise whether the project should continue.
Suu Kyi told The Irrawaddy in Monywa that future action would be conducted through this parliamentary commission. “I shall look into this kind of problem further depending on the situation. Police officials told me they will take action on those responsible for the crackdown,” she said.
After her public speech at Monywa, the Nobel laureate met police officers in Sagaing Division. However, Sagaing Division Chief Minister ex-Lt-Gen Tha Aye was absent from these discussions. After meeting with security personnel, she also met villagers and monks who had been hurt during the raid.
Despite growing public anger towards Wan Bao Company, some observers have warned people to beware of protesting because of the firm’s connections with the military-owned UMEHL.
Chan Htun, a veteran politician and former Burmese ambassador to China, told The Irrawaddy on Monday, “I want to urge all concerned stakeholders to solve this problem respectfully because it could even spread nationwide as monks get involved in the protest.”
Even though the Chinese and Burmese authorities have a good relationship, public sentiment could grow as people see images of Buddhist monks being brutally beaten and burnt, said Chan Htun. “It could become a nationwide issue if the authorities don’t handle it carefully,” he added.
Meanwhile, witnesses told Human Rights Watch (HRW) that security forces involved in the early morning raid on the six protest camps used tear gas, smoke bombs and fire against protesters.
“A hospital ward full of horribly burned Buddhist monks and other protesters deserve to know who attacked them while they were sleeping and what the government is going to do about it,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW.
“The crackdown at the Letpadaung mine is a fundamental test case for the government’s commitment to peaceful assembly and willingness to demand accountability for abuses.”