RANGOON—Protesters demanding a complete shutdown of a Chinese-backed copper mining project near Monywa in Upper Burma were forcefully dispersed by police using tear gas and water cannons early on Thursday morning in a raid which led to dozens of people being badly burned.
In the most violent government response to civil disobedience since tentative democratic reforms were introduced last year, riot police descended on six protest camps at around 2:30 am with a raft of aggressive measures that reportedly left large areas ablaze.
“They gave us five minutes to leave our camp. When the time up, water cannons came in and then tear gas and fire bombs,” said Zaw Phone Myint, 36, who was at the camp by the main gate of Wanbao Company when the raid began.
He said six monks were arrested with another six protesters seriously injured at his camp with severe burns to their faces, arms and thighs due to incendiary devices.
“At 2:30 am, the main gate of Wanbao suddenly swung open and police charged in. Ten monks at our camp stood up to protect the rest of the protesters but the monks were knocked down by water jets. Then the fire bombs came in. They set our motorcycles on fire. We had to run for our lives,” said Aye Net, one of the protest leaders.
“Monks dragged me away. Otherwise, I would have been killed or arrested,” she added.
“We have 10 injured protesters, including monks,” said Thaw Zin, an anti-copper mine activist at another camp, adding that 15 people from his area are still missing and were likely arrested.
The total number of injured and arrested at the protest area, in Sagaing Division, still cannot be confirmed. The raid comes on the same day as Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was scheduled to visit the area to learn more about protesters’ complaints.
On Tuesday evening, the local authorities ordered the protesters to leave their camps by midnight or face legal action as their gathering was against the law. But the demonstrators ignored the ultimatum.
“When the raid started, we didn’t believe that [the police] would use that kind of violence as we are no longer under military dictatorship. We were shocked,” said Thaw Zin. “We weren’t disturbing law and order. We were unarmed people who were just asking for our rights.”
The raid has been condemned by various opposition and civil society groups who fear such actions a show of force could undermine recent reforms that have earned praise from the international community.
“It’s very unwise of them. I seriously condemn it. This event shows whether they are for democratic transition or not, and who they are and what their mentality is. They all are the same—generals in suits. Now this crackdown may ignite public anger and fan further unrest,” said Win Tin, a leading member of the main opposition National League for Democracy party.
“Twenty-two monks have been hospitalized in Monywa Hospital. Six are in a serious condition. All are suffering skin burns. A 64-year-old monk has been referred to Mandalay hospital for his severe burns. There’s a heavy security presence around Monywa Hospital, accelerating fear among the injured that they will be arrested if they go there for treatment,” said Myo Thant, an 88 Generation Students group member, who is now assisting the injured in Monywa.
The mining project, a joint-venture between the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd and China’s Wan Bao Company, has come under fire since August after more than 300 residents from 12 villages in the Letpadaung mountain range staged protests to demand its closure, citing environmental destruction, forced relocations and illegal land confiscation.
More than 7,800 acres of land from 26 villages under the shadow of the mountain range have been seized to make way for the project that began last year. Since mid-November, protesters have been disrupting workers by linking arms to block the path of trucks at the construction site, and erecting camps nearby.
“I feel very sad. I never thought they would respond to us like that. We are the Burmese and [the police] are Burmese too,” added Aye Net. “But on witnessing that they are protecting Chinese interests by using force on their fellow Burmese, it has caused me a great deal of heartache.”