Three staff members of Myanmar Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd – two Chinese nationals and their Burmese driver – were seized and held hostage on Sunday evening by local residents in the village of Seté who are reported to be infuriated at the Chinese company for continuing to work on the nearby mining project at Latpadaung where lands have been confiscated from local farmers.
Win Win Htay, a native of Seté who has campaigned against the copper mine, said the Wanbao staff were detained by 20 villagers when they came to measure plots of land. The Burmese driver was later released but the two Chinese surveyors continue to be detained on Monday evening at the time of press.
The villagers released a statement on Sunday saying they would release the two Chinese in exchange for the release from prison of Latpadaung activist Aung Soe, and the dismantling of fences from around the by Myanmar Wanbao project lands in Seté.
A statement released by Myanmar Wanbao on Monday morning said the “kidnappers” had since dropped their demand for Aung Soe to be released, but had instead called for the complete suspension of the mining project in exchange for the two staffers.
“Wanbao confirms that at 11am this [Monday] morning, three of our contractors working for Norbenco, Mr. Lu Yuanhao and Mr. Miu Jie, both Chinese nationals and 23 years of age, and Mr Khin Aung Moe, a 21-year-old Myanmar national, were taken against their will by activists purporting to belong to the ‘Student Network of Mandalay’ and two monks from Old Sede village,” the firm said.
Myanmar Wanbao also said that the Chinese employees had been beaten and that death threats had been made.
Resident and activist Win Win Htay, however, rejected the firm’s allegation and said that the two detainees had not even by “touched with fingertips” during their ordeal.
“We did this [hostage-taking] because 37 local villagers have not agreed to accept compensation and are still living inside the fenced-off area at the foot of the hill. We have repeatedly urged Myanmar Wanbao to negotiate, but our calls have gone unanswered. We went to their liaison office, but each time they tell us they will raise our demands with the management of the company. It has all been fruitless. They repeatedly deny responsibility and accountability in resolving the land issues no matter what we do.
“Then, yesterday [Sunday], two Chinese employees came to take measurements of the farmland for which compensation has not yet been agreed. That’s why we detained them. We would like a senior official from Wanbao to come and discuss the matter with us about the fences they have built and are planning to build.
“If they do this, we will let their men go,” he said.
He added that the Seté villagers would guarantee not to harm the Chinese men, and provide them with food and hospitality until the meeting occurred.
Myanmar Wanbao Copper could not be reached for further comment at the time of press on Monday evening.
Activist Han Win Aung said, however, that the villagers would not guarantee the safety of the detained employees if police used force to try to secure their release.
Myo Nyunt Swe, the Salingyi District government administrator, said the action by the villagers is tantamount to kidnapping and that the authorities were preparing to take suitable action.
“We are working to secure the release of the two Chinese nationals – we assume there are elements behind the villagers who are instigating this unrest. It is them we will take action against,” he said.
DVB reporter Tin Mar Swe, who spent Sunday night in Seté and was preparing for another night in the village to monitor the ongoing situation, said that the Wanbao staff were brought into the village with hands tied behind their backs but that they had not been mistreated.
“The two detainees are today [Monday] being kept in a villager’s house and provided meals,” she said by telephone.
The DVB reporter said that on Sunday night at about 11pm, villagers attacked police vehicles in nearby Kyaukphutaing village, presumably to stop the security forces travelling to the site of the standoff. Police retaliated with slingshots, she said, adding that five cars and 12 motorbikes belonging to police were smashed or destroyed by villagers who wielded knives and bricks. Three police officers were injured in the melee, she reported.
She also noted that about 200 security police had been stationed inside a school in Kyaukphutaing on Monday evening and had set up roadblocks around the area.
According to Burma’s Ministry of Information (MoI), the police have been brought in to mediate with villagers, and that the Myanmar Wanbao staffers who had been apprehended had in fact been measuring air pollution in the area on Sunday, not land plot sizes.
MoI also said that the injured policemen were not in serious condition.
China’s state-run news agency Xinhua reported on Monday that Wanbao had sent a letter to Chief Minister of Sagaing Region Thar Aye, “asking for urgent assistance for the immediate release of two Chinese nationals working for the Norbenco team”.
This article was edited on 20 May 2014 to clarify the following: DVB originally reported that 37 villagers in Seté were waiting to receive compensation; those villagers have not agreed to accept compensation in exchange for their land.