Villagers, Activists Claim Innocence of Student Charged in Chinese Workers’ Kidnapping

By Nyein Nyein 22 September 2014

Phyu Hnin Htwe, a 23-year-old university student from central Mandalay Division, was a welcome guest in the Hsete village, which she regularly visited to help the 10th grade students of poor local families with their studies.

The activist student felt a strong sympathy for the plight of the village in Sagaing Division’s Yinmabin Township, one of 26 villages that have been embroiled in a drawn-out land dispute with Wanbao, a Chinese mining company excavating copper deposits from the Letpadaung Mountain.

Her activities with the children in Hsete village on May 18 would prove fateful after authorities decided that they would charge her in connection with the alleged kidnapping that day of two Chinese workers by local villagers who oppose the mine.

On Sept 13, months after the incident, police visited her hometown of Patheingyi in Mandalay, located some 100 km to the east, and arrested her. The young student has spent the last ten nights in Monywa Prison and could face up to ten years in prison on charges of kidnapping and abduction if the court finds her guilty.

Her friends and family, and local villagers, have been left stunned by the fact that authorities would seek to arrest Phyu Hnin Htwe, and insist she has nothing to do with the May 18 incident.

“She had been helping the children from our villages for about two years. At that time of the incident in May, she was at the village helping the children,” said Ma Sandar, who lives in Tone, a village neighboring Hsete. “She was not involved in the abduction case.”

Phyu Hnin Htwe is scheduled to appear at Yinmabin District Court on Tuesday, according to her brother Pyae Phyo, who visited her in prison in recent days. “She asked about the villagers and the people she works with when I went to meet her at the prison, instead of asking first about her family,” said Pyae Phyo, who is a National League for Democracy member in Mandalay.

He said she was passionate about helping communities affected by land-grabbing, adding, “She devoted her time to the land rights movement and has been protesting and helping the [Monywa] villagers since 2012.”

Phyu Hnin Htwe has been following a long-distance studying course at Mandalay’s Yadanabon University and is a member of its students’ union, which is part of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU).

The ABFSU has called for Phyu Hnin Htwe’s immediate release, saying that she is being falsely accused.

Kyaw Ko Ko, chair of the ABFSU central committee, said the group had launched a campaign calling for the release of Phyu Hnin Htwe. He said he had attempted to contact Wanbao company and local authorities in order to find out who had been the plaintiff in the case against her, but had been unable to find out.

Yinmabin Township is one several townships where communities have been affected by the copper mine. Wanbao company has been granted huge swathes of farmland by the government, but thousands of farmers claim they have not been properly compensated for the confiscation of their land.

The Letpadaung copper mine is a joint venture of Wanbao and the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economics Holding limited and has been deeply unpopular with the wider Burmese public. Activists from across Burma have come out in support of the affected communities.

On May 18, the villagers in Yinmabin Township were angered when they saw Chinese Wanbao employees carrying out survey works on recently seized lands. Villagers believed the aim of the company was to later fence in the area. They consequently brought the two men, along with a Burmese Wanbao employee, to Hsete village. The Burmese national was released the same day, but the Chinese employees were held for about 30 hours.

Ma Sandar said the villagers had never intended to harm the freedom of movement of the company workers, adding that they had has just hoped to force the company to negotiate with them. She said, “But it did not turn out as we expected.”

A total of seven people were charged with abduction in May; five were arrested and later pardoned by the court.

Phyu Hnin Htwe and Win Kyaw, a local villager, were also charged but did not show up for the trial. Until recently, Monywa authorities had made no attempt to arrest the two. Win Kyaw still remains at large.