Burmese workers arrested for arson after clashes on a Chinese-backed oil pipeline project in Arakan State claim they were beaten by police and forced to confess to the charges, their lawyer has claimed.
Seventeen ethnic Chin men working on the oil pipeline in Ann Township have been detained since a fire broke out at a warehouse following a dispute between local and Chinese workers. There was reportedly fighting between the workers during the incident, but only the Chin men were detained.
Their trial began on Monday at the Ann Township Court, about 22 miles (35 kilometers) from the work camp where the incident took place.
The plaintiff in the case is the local director of the state-run Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprises (MOGE)—which with the China National Petroleum Company is building the oil pipeline connecting Kyaukphyu on the Arakan coast with China’s Yunnan Province. The director claims about 160 million kyat, or more than US$160,000, of damage was done by the fire.
Aung Thein, an advocate based in Rangoon who is representing the accused together with three local lawyers, said the director, Myo Win Htut, told the court that the Chin workers had admitted to the arson.
“When the plaintiff gave answers at the court, he said the 17 workers had confessed that they committed those actions,” the lawyer said.
“I asked the workers at the same time whether it was true. The workers answered in the courtroom that they were beaten and forced to say that when the police took statements from them.”
Aung Thein said the 17 accused were being charged with three crimes—trespassing, mischief by setting fire to a building and abetting.
The ethnic Chin workers are from Ngaphe village in Magwe Division and are aged between 17 and 32 years old, he said.
They were part of a staff of about 200 workers at the work camp in Ann. About one third of the workers were Chinese, and local residents report that there was antagonism between the Chinese and local workers prior to the clash.
The dispute allegedly started when liquid—either waste water or urine, depending on the version of events—was poured from the upper floor of a residential block, in which Chinese workers were staying upstairs and Chin workers below. Aung Thein said the fact the Chin workers live on the site made the trespass charge laughable.
But he said that since the plaintiff in the case was a MOGE official—as opposed to the police, who usually act as the plaintiff in criminal cases—the court was likely to rule against the workers.
Thwe Thwe Soe, an Ann resident, told The Irrawaddy that she was worried innocent people may be wrongly convicted over the incident.
“All of the 17 might not have been involved in the incident,” she said. “It is unfair that none of the Chinese workers were detained.”