Letpadaung Protesters Stage Sit-In Near Police Station

By Sanay Lin 14 August 2013

RANGOON—Local residents staged a sit-in on Tuesday afternoon near a police station in downtown Monywa, northwest Burma, to demand the release of prominent activist Naw Ohn Hla and nine others who were arrested during a protest against the Letpadaung mine project.

A peaceful protest of about 150 people earlier in the day was violently broken up by the police in downtown Monywa, and Naw Ohn Hla, a former political prisoner, was arrested with nine other participants, said Han Win Aung, a local activist. Riots broke out during the police bust and a few locals were hurt, he said.

The group had been protesting in downtown Monywa when they encountered police officers blocking their way at the Monywa-Myinmu highway junction. Unable to proceed, the protesters decided to sit down and wait. The police entered the crowd and forcibly arrested the eight protesters, said Sanda, one of the demonstrators.

“Now we have started our strike again by sitting in the monastery compound near Police Station No. 1 in Monywa, where Naw Ohn Hla and the others are being held,” Kyaw Thu, who joined the sit-in, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday. “The police have blocked the entrance of the monastery with barbed wire. There are now over 60 people here demonstrating, and they have decided not to stand up until the 10 arrested participants are released.”

Residents near the Letpadaung mine traveled to the town of Monywa on Tuesday morning to begin the demonstration. They had applied nine times for permission from local authorities to protest, said Han Wing Aung, but their applications were rejected.

“At first, the demonstrating crowd was demanding amendments to the Constitution and the shutdown of the Letpadaung copper mine,” said Sandar. “Then the police forcibly broke up the protest. Demonstrators were grabbed and pushed into a police vehicle. As a result, riots broke out and some were injured. However, while I was there, I did not see the police hit any demonstrators. The crowd dispersed in fear.”

A police force of about 200 officers came to break up the protest, Sandar added.

An official at Police Station No. 1 confirmed to The Irrawaddy that 10 demonstrators had been detained but declined to provide details about their alleged offenses. The official said the issue was being investigated by the divisional and township police departments.

“We cannot yet tell you what we are going to do next,” said the deputy officer-in-charge of the Monywa Township police station.

The controversial Letpadaung copper mine project in Sagaing Division is set to resume operations within the next two months, a union minister said last month, following the signing of a new contract that gave the government a large share of the mine’s profits.

Operations at the mine have been suspended since November, following a brutal police crackdown on peaceful protesters who opposed the project’s environmental and social impact on local communities. The crackdown left dozens of people injured and prompted the government to set up a parliamentary committee to investigate the project’s viability.

According to the new contract, Burma’s government will have a 51 percent stake in the mine, while Wanbao Mining Ltd of China and its business partner, the military-backed Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL), will retain 49 percent ownership. Previously, Wanbao and UMEHL held complete control.

More than 7,000 acres of farmland were confiscated in 2010 for the copper mine project.