Authorities in Sagaing division have acceded to a demand by residents in Mogyopyin village, near the Latpadaung copper mine project, to remove police guard posts from around their village.
Speaking at a meeting with Mogyopyin villagers on Monday, Col. Kyi Naing, Sagaing division’s Minister for Border Affairs and Security, pledged to remove the guard posts which were set up by security forces on 12 November on the road leading from the village, allegedly to prevent the residents from joining a rally at nearby Ingyin Hill.
“We want to make things right and promise that no violent measures will be taken against the public,” he told the assembled villagers. “If this [roadblock] is making travel difficult, we will sort it out.”
The minister appeared to be referring to an incident on 14 November when seven villagers were shot with rubber bullets after a confrontation between protestors and police turned heated.
On Monday, Kyi Naing and regional police commander Nay Doon traveled to Mogyopyin to negotiate with villagers and Buddhist monks.
“We don’t want to see any more guard posts [on the edge of town] by the end of this day,” said a local woman. “We will not allow them to set up again in this area since we never accepted land grab compensation.”
In response, Col. Kyi Naing, said, “We are just doing our job. We know this is damaging to the villagers, but please do not resort to violence. Just like I said the other day – we regard everyone here as our family.”
Meanwhile, Latpadaung activist Han Win Aung told DVB that fellow activist Naw Ohn Hla, upon her release from Mandalay prison on Friday, returned immediately to Sagaing division to join protestors at the Ingyin Hill rally camp.
“Naw Ohn Hla said she would continue working for the cause of the Latpadaung villagers. She went to Sete village and the rally camps on Ingyin Hill and Mogyopyin to show solidarity with the villagers,” he said.
On Monday, Naw Ohn Hla also went to visit Mogyopyin villager Aye San in a Mandalay hospital. Aye San was injured in the altercation with police on 14 November.
On Tuesday, Myanmar Journalists Network (MJN) released a statement condemning the riot police in Monywa for harassing and forcing two reporters – Unity News journal’s Kyaw Naing and Asia Alin journal’s Myo Myint Zaw – to delete photographs from their cameras on Friday after the confrontation between police and villagers at Mogyopyin.
According to the statement, the police forcefully searched the reporters and intimidated them “as if they were criminals”.
MJN said the police officers’ treatment of the journalists was “against the law, and damaging to the freedoms of transparency and expression which are fundamental to a democratic system.”
The statement also called on the Ministry of Home Affairs to conduct an inquiry into the alleged incident.
One of the two reporters in question, Kyaw Naing of Unity News, said, “We headed to Mogyopyin after being informed that there was a confrontation between police and villagers. About five minutes after we got there, more police arrived in trucks. They were immediately targeted by villagers with stones thrown from slingshots as soon as they got out. Then the police – without even firing any warning shots – began shooting into the crowd.
“In fact, many of villagers took aim at us with their slings, despite us telling them that we are journalists,” he told DVB.
“After we had finished gathering information, we headed back along the Monywa-Pathein Highway Road where the riot police were deployed. They stopped our mopeds. An officer sitting in a truck shouted to the guards: ‘Smash their cameras!’”
“Three more senior police officials arrived and I addressed one of them – he had three stars on his lapel: a lieutenant. He swore at me, making reference to my mother and sister. They treated us very rudely and demanded we give them our cameras or SD cards. When we refused, they demanded we delete all the photos.”
Local villagers and their supporters have been protesting the Latpadaung copper mine since its inception around 10 years ago. Many have been displaced to make way for the project which was originally contracted to Canadian firm, Ivanhoe Mines.
Currently owned as a joint venture between military-backed Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings and China’s Wanbao Company, the controversial project was temporarily suspended when activists and monks staged a mass sit-in protest last year. The protest was broken up brutally by riot police on 29 November; some 80 protestors were injured, many with horrific burns that several experts have attributed to white phosphorous bombs.
A subsequent investigation headed by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi failed to pronounce anyone guilty for the violent crackdown, and to many villagers’ dismay, recommended to the government that the project be resumed.