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Protesters Demand Release of Detainees at Letpadaung Mine

Nyein Nyein The Irrawaddy

Several hundred villagers marched to a police station in Salingyi Township on Friday, calling for the release of detainees who were arrested on Thursday in a crackdown on farmers near the controversial Letpadaung copper mine.

Amid a heavy deployment of security forces in the Letpadaung area outside of Sagaing Division’s Monywa, the protesters marched from the village of Tone to the police station on Friday afternoon.

Residents from the village of Hse Te said more security forces were dispatched near the copper mine’s company building in Hse Te soon after the crackdown on farmers, who were plowing in an act of protest.

“Three trucks of riot police and another seven from Salingyi are dispatched near the company building in Hse Te,” said Han Win Aung from the Rangoon People’s Support Network.

Three people remain in custody, and another three villagers were injured after security forces moved against the farmers in Hse Te on Thursday morning. The injuries reportedly included at least one gunshot wound.

Protesters on Friday called for the release of the detainees and the complete abandonment of the mining project. They also demanded that authorities immediately rescind the area’s Act 144 emergency declaration, which prohibits gatherings and restricts entry to certain areas, and take action against those riot police who cracked down violently during Thursday’s protest.

State media on Friday reported that 15 police officers were also hurt by the farmers’ “harsh acts against security forces,” which The New Light of Myanmar said included stone throwing and the beating of officers. The newspaper went on to report that police were forced to fire shots into the air to disperse the crowd and protect themselves.

The state media account referred to the plowing farmers as “rioters,” and members of the activist group Rangoon People’s Support Network (referred to as the Yangon Public Service Network) were accused of instigating the protest.

Local authorities have issued arrest warrants for 15 villagers and supporters.

Win Htay, a female farmer who escaped police arrest, said she and her landlord Ye Ye Win are among those with warrants out for their arrest.

She told The Irrawaddy on Friday that police pursued her during Thursday morning’s crackdown but she managed to escape.

“We have not taken the compensation for the farmlands and oppose the confiscation of our land, so they target us [for arrest] and accuse us of being rioters,” said Win Htay, whose 23 acres of farmland was seized.

Last month, a report by a government-formed commission chaired by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi recommended that the copper mine project should continue, but suggested that compensation should be given to the farmers by its developers.

Many villagers have refused to take the compensation and this week began plowing their fields ahead of the approaching monsoon season.

The Chinese firm Wanbao is jointly developing the mine with Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL), a firm owned by Burma’s military.

“It is an unjust action by the government,” said activist Han Win Aung, who is also on the arrest warrant list.

“They do not take any actions against the company and the security forces for using incendiary devices on the peaceful protesters in November last year,” he said, referring to an incident in which police used smoke bombs containing phosphorous on a protest in November 2012, injuring several demonstrators.

“Now such shooting by security forces on protesters is also without consequence. But they accuse the farmers plowing their fields of instigating riots. It is unfair that they see the military’s UMEHL work as fair and our people have to follow whatever they want.”

He said state media’s account of Thursday’s events was biased and failed to mention that security forces destroyed activists’ cameras, phones and other electronic devices.

“These trained riot police, who serve the company for 1,500 kyat [$1.70] per day, cracked down on the farmers but they accuse us [of instigating the violence],” Han Win Aung added.

“We are just taking our lands back; it is not as though we are taking other people’s property. They may call us rioters, but we have never been those kinds of people. In yesterday’s incidents, they [the security forces] started the crackdown,” Win Htay said.

“State media broadcast that local officials were not present at the crackdown, but I saw U Khin Maung San, Monywa’s administrator as well as a Salingyi Township administrator yesterday,” she added. “U Khin Maung San ordered the arrest of both men and women.”

Win Htay said locals would not be deterred despite the presence of security forces in the area.

“We will keep plowing our fields regardless, as it is our land.”