MANDALAY — Villagers in Mandalay Region say they were blocked by police from reaching the regional capital on Tuesday to protest the construction of a cement factory in their community and later informed that five of them were being sued.
Locals say the factory will be powered by coal and fear the damage it might do to the local environment and their livelihoods. They say the project has already blocked off some communal grazing land and that most locals want it stopped.
The Alpha cement factory, owned by China’s Myint Investment Company, is under construction in Aung Thabyay village, Patheingyi Township, about 37 km north of Mandalay City.
Locals say the company conducted soil testing at the site in 2014 and bought the 242 hectares from residents after securing permission to build the factory and mine a nearby hill for raw material.
“We sent several complaints to the government back then, and the project was halted. However, it resumed in 2015 despite our objections,” said Ko Moe Lay, an Aung Thabyay resident.
According to locals, the company planned to extend a village road to lead to the factory two months ago, but villagers objected to that, too, for fear of losing land they owned along the route.
On Sunday, a 64-year-old farmer who refused orders from local authorities to stop fencing off her land, Daw Mya Mya, was arrested and detained at the township police station. Villagers soon gathered around the station to demand her release but failed to secure it.
The protesters submitted a request later the same day to stage another protest in Mandalay City on Monday. Though authorities approved the request, they were blocked on the way to Mandalay by police and turned back.
On Tuesday, police notified five villagers that they were being sued under Article 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law and for disrupting road work. They showed reporters the notices.
“We have no idea why we have been sued under those laws. We already had permission to stage the protest. But the police blocked us and we had a dispute,” said Ma Yin Yin Aung, one of the sued villagers.
“The mountain that the factory took is where our cattle used to go to graze. Since construction of the factory began, the natural streams have been blocked, too,” she said
“And we heard the factory will use coal power, which could affect the environment, too. And there are no big trees around our village anymore. The area will become like a desert soon if the factory is allowed to operate and dig up the mountains,” she added.
Locals say they have sent more complaints to regional and national government offices in recent months.
“We’ve sent several complaints, but the government still doesn’t listen to us. Instead, the police showed up and threatened us with the law. We just want mother Suu to know and hope she can stop this factory,” said Ko Moe Lay, referring to State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Police could not be reached for comment. The regional governor and company representatives declined to speak with a reporter.