Put Us in Prison, Letpadaung Protesters Say

By Lawi Weng 30 April 2013

RANGOON—Hundreds of protesters have dared the police to put them behind bars in northwest Burma, in an act of solidarity with activists who are wanted by local authorities after opposing a controversial copper mine project in the region.

About 300 protesters stopped on Monday at the police office in Nyaung Pin Gyi village, Sagaing Division, asking police to put them in jail rather than continuing their hunt for eight activists who allegedly helped organize demonstrations last week against the Letpadaung copper mining project.

Aung Than Myo, one of the protesters, said the group met the police while marching to the head office of the mining project, a joint venture between a Burmese military-controlled conglomerate and a Chinese mining company.

He said the police would not detain them.

“We were on our way to the company,” he told The Irrawaddy. “We all stopped at a police station to let the police arrest us, because we’re not happy about the police’s earlier warning statement.”

He was referring to a police announcement released over the weekend which warned local residents in Sagaing Division that anyone who harbored the eight suspected activists or failed to provide information on their whereabouts could face up to 10 years in jail.

The police said in the announcement that they would file charges against the activists for allegedly provoking earlier demonstrations against the copper mine and engaging in other illegal activities.

The eight activists include six members of the Rangoon People’s Support Network—Aung Soe, Ba Htoo, Thar Gyi, Ko Latt, Thaw Zin and Ko Thu—as well as Han Win Aung from the Political Prisoners Families’ Beneficial Network and Thaung Htike Oo of the Rangoon Institute of Technology’s student union.

Across the country, activists in Rangoon also decried the police’s announcement.

“The people are losing their rights as citizens with this type of action from the police,” activists from the Former Political Prisoners Group said in a statement on Tuesday.

The Rangoon-based activist group criticized the police crackdown on a demonstration against the mining project last week in Hse Te village.

“We strongly condemn [the police response] after we heard there was someone being treated at the hospital because he was shot by the police during the conflict on April 26,” it said.

At least three people were injured last Thursday after security forces moved against farmers in Hse Te village who were plowing land seized for the mining project. The injuries reportedly included two gunshot wounds.

Protesters are calling on authorities to release three people who remain in custody since then, and to revoke a local ordinance which prohibits gatherings and restricts access to certain areas, including the their former paddy fields.

About 10 villages have now joined in protests against the mining project, local sources reported on Monday.

The Letpadaung copper mining project has displaced farming families in 26 villages from their land, with more than 7,000 acres confiscated in 2010.

Protests began last year against the project, which is a joint venture between the Chinese Wanbao company and Burma’s military-owned Union of Myanmar Economics Holdings.

The issue caught international attention in November after a police crackdown injured more than 100 peaceful protesters, mostly Buddhist monks.

A government team headed by pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi recommended last month that the mining project continue and farmers receive compensation for their lost land, but some families are fusing to take the money.

Local residents told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that authorities had allowed some farmers to return to land outside the mining project area, but added that the allowance was not enough.

Ma Sandar, a woman from Tone village, said she could not farm on the small plot of land she had been afforded along Nyaung Pin Gyi-Salingyi road.

Additional reporting by Nyein Nyein.