RANGOON — A Burmese activist who burned a Chinese flag during a protest outside the Chinese Embassy in Rangoon last week has been detained by the police.
The activist was detained on Tuesday after joining a protest of more than 100 people outside the embassy last Friday, the one-year anniversary of a violent police crackdown on monks and local villagers who opposed a controversial Chinese-backed copper mine in northwest Burma.
Tin Htut Paing, a leader of Generation Youth, an advocacy group, was charged with violating Section 505 (b) of the Penal Code and a law on peaceful assembly that requires individuals to obtain a permit to demonstrate. Three other protesters were charged with similar violations but have not been detained.
The protesters were demonstrating against Chinese mining company Wanbao, which is cooperating with the Burma government and a Burmese military-backed company to run the controversial Letpadaung copper mine in Monywa, northwest Burma.
The mine is opposed by many local people for its environmental and social impacts. At protests around the mine last year in November, police violently cracked down with incendiary devices, injuring dozens of people, the majority of whom were monks.
At the anniversary protest last week outside the Chinese Embassy in Rangoon’s Dagon Township, demonstrators called on authorities to determine who was responsible for the Letpadaung crackdown and to force Wanbao out of Burma.
The Dagon Township Police called Tin Htut Paing for questioning at midday on Tuesday and said they would release him shortly, according to Min Nay Htoo, who took part in the embassy protest. “But at night they charged him and kept him in custody,” he told The Irrawaddy.
“They had no plan to burn it, but after a conflict with authorities, who could not negotiate with the protesters in front of the embassy, they did burn it,” he said, referring to Tin Htut Paing and Aung Soe, one of the three other protesters facing charges.
Section 505 (b) of the Penal Code allows for up to two years of imprisonment for anyone who “makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumor or report with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offense against the State or against public tranquility.”
Tin Htut Paing and at least one of the other activists facing charges have been arrested and imprisoned in the past for their involvement in protests.
Chinese state media on Thursday commented on the embassy protest, warning that “the political intervention of monks in Myanmar [Burma] has significantly worsened the country’s investment environment.”
“The Chinese embassy in Myanmar recently witnessed a protest over the ongoing Monywa Copper Mine project at its doorstep. From the photos spread online, monks were detected once again among the protesters, waving fists and shouting slogans. Their continuous presence in these protests signals a risk to this nation in transition,” Ding Gang, a senior editor with People’s Daily, wrote for the Global Times.
Ding Gang said the copper mine was a joint project between China and Burma, with the Burmese government drawing 51 percent of the profit. He said issues concerning relocation of villagers and compensation for their land, as well as environmental protection, were being dealt with “fairly and squarely according to Myanmar’s laws.”
He said monks were protesting the relocation of a temple on the mine site where they said an ancient master once transcribed Buddhist scriptures. “However, according to the local historical records, this ‘cultural relic’ hypothesis is groundless,” he wrote. “This temple is simply a memorial for a great master after he passed away.
“In this Buddhist country, monks enjoy a high social status. But their sense of xenophobia is also strong, especially in face of the Muslims which account for less than 10 percent of the total population,” he continued, citing violence between Buddhists and Muslims around the country.
“The political intervention of monks in Myanmar has significantly worsened the country’s investment environment. The Monywa Copper Mine, unfortunately, is becoming a card in their hands to confront the Myanmar government and military. This tendency casts grave shadows on Chinese companies and other foreign investments. Economic losses can be calculated, but if this religious extremism was given free rein, the disastrous consequences to Myanmar society would be incalculable.”
About 150 villagers and several local monks in northwest Burma resumed protests against the Letpadaung mine last month after a controlled explosion at the mine allegedly damaged a local Buddhist pagoda.
The mine has long been a source of conflict, as local villagers claim it has polluted their water sources and farmland, while they also feel they received unfair compensation for their loss of farmland to the project.
A parliamentary committee reviewed the project earlier this year and said it should continue if the social and environmental impacts were properly addressed.