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Burmese riot police crack down on anti-mining protest

Protestors pictured in front of China's Wanbao Company in Latpadaung area on 20 November 2012
Protestors pictured in front of China's Wanbao Company in Latpadaung area on 20 November 2012

Open Society Monywa/Mizzima News

UPDATE: White phosphorous used on Latpadaung protesters, say lawyers (Mizzima News, 31 January 2013)

Based on Mizzima News reports from 29, 28 and 23 November 2012

Comprising local farmers, Buddhist monks, students, NGO activists and local residents, a protest group of about 200 people launched a sit-in in June 2012 on Latpadaung Mountain in Sagaing Division. They are opposed to plans to build a series of copper mines through the mountain and the local landscape by two mining companies, the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and China's Wanbao Company.

The villagers say the mining companies have illegally confiscated more than 8,000 acres (3,237 hectares) of farmland from 26 villages in Sarlingyi township since 2011. Environmental groups argue the copper mine and its residue waste poses grave hazards to the local residents and the ecosystem. Civic society group leader Aung Soe told Mizzima that they have been petitioning the company to suspend the project until late March 2013. He said the protesters were hoping that the matter would be discussed in Parliament.

According to Mizzima, a thousand police officers and security forces moved in on Wednesday 28 November to disperse the protesters. While security forces beat their shields with batons and shouted threats, authorities gave orders via amplifiers for the protesters to vacate the sites around Latpadaung Mountain. They announced that a curfew was being imposed under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, according to Min Min, a Mizzima correspondent who was at the site. Despite the order, about 100 Buddhist monks from the town of Monywa reinforced the main protest camp, he said. Likewise, the security presence was beefed up at the main site on 28 November.

Subsequently, in the early hours of Thursday morning, 29 November, riot police violently cracked down on protesters at the main "sit-in" site in front of the offices of the Wanbao copper mine company, injuring more than 80 people, including many Buddhist monks.

Some 30 monks were taken to Monywa Hospital to receive medical treatment. One of the monks is in critical condition and was transported to a hospital in Mandalay.

"Initially, they [the riot police] directed water cannons at the protesters," said a Mizzima correspondent who was at the site. "Then they started firing at us. We still don't know what they were using. We heard loud explosions, followed by smoke; then fires broke out. It was blinding."

With regard to earlier reports that tear gas had been fired at the protesters, the correspondent said, "The injured did not have tears streaming from their eyes. Their eyes were not red. When they rubbed their wounds, large spots appeared, not blisters."

It has been reported that 10 monks have been declared missing.

As of 29 November, the latest report was that the protest camp had been gutted by fire. The compound of the Wanbao Company was sealed off with barbed wire, and surrounded by riot police equipped with shields, batons and firearms. The vast majority of protesters had not left the site.

Activists arrested in Rangoon

On 28 November, Mizzima reported that Burmese authorities arrested and charged six activists who protested in Rangoon on Monday 26 November against the Latpadaung Mountain copper mining project, according to eyewitness Thiha Win Tin, a member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU).

The six protesters, including two females, did not apparently seek permission to stage the public demonstration, and were subsequently arrested and charged under Section 18 and Section 505 (b) of the Penal Code for inciting unrest and disturbing public tranquility.

"When the six were arrested, they were told they could not apply for bail, and were sent to Insein Prison," Thiha Win Tin told Mizzima. "Section 505 (b) is related to disturbing public tranquility. The former junta used it frequently as a way to arrest political activists. The protest did not incite people. It was peaceful. We just expressed the needs of citizens."

Former National League for Democracy (NLD) member Naw Ohn Hla was among the six arrested. Others known to be detained are Ko Wai Lu, Ko Ko Kyaw and Ye Lin, according to Thiha Win Tin. He said that many people evaded capture otherwise the number might have been much higher.

On the night of 26 November, security forces ransacked the houses of some of the protest organizers, said Thiha Win Tin. "At 10 pm, about 10 security officials and quarter heads came to my house," he said.

President Thein Sein's government earlier this year approved a bill allowing peaceful protests as part of the political changes sweeping the former army-ruled country. However, demonstrators must obtain permission in advance.


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