Letpadaung Activists Hold Two Chinese Workers Hostage for 30 Hours

Local activists demanding a halt to a controversial copper mine project in northern Myanmar kidnapped two Chinese workers and held them for 30 hours before releasing them after violent clashes with police, officials and activists said.  

The activists abducted the two contractors working for the operator of the Chinese-backed Letpadaung copper mine in the Sagaing region on Sunday morning, demanding compensation for villagers’ farmland acquired for the project and immunity from prosecution in exchange for the duo’s freedom, they said.

At one stage, the kidnappers threatened to kill the captives if villagers were injured by police attempting to free the men.

The abduction prompted a clash Sunday night in which villagers pelted stones at police and destroyed their motorcycles and cars as police retaliated firing slingshots and rubber bullets, according to President Thein Sein’s spokesman Ye Htut.

The activists released the two men following several rounds of negotiations with local and regional officials on Monday, company officials said.

An official with mine operator Myanmar Wanbao Copper Mining Ltd. told Agence France-Presse that the company was “very happy” the two men were freed.

Wanbao had earlier written a letter to the Sagaing region minister and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi asking for urgent assistance to help end the crisis, saying villagers had threatened the workers “with death” and demanded a complete halt to the mining project, according to the Irrawaddy online journal.

Brutal crackdown

Local residents and activists have protested against the mine since it began expanding operations several years ago, prompting a brutal police crackdown in 2012 that sparked a national outcry.

According to Wanbao, the two Chinese workers were detained by the villagers along with their driver, a Myanmar national, while they were out conducting a land survey. The driver was released later that day.

Ye Htut told RFA that villagers had resorted to violence when police moved to free the workers.

“At around 10:00 pm [Sunday] night, police led by Sagaing police officers came into the village and villagers from Sete and Zeetaw villages pelted stones at them,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.  

The villagers also used stones to attack police who were stationed at the Kyautphyutie Village Elementary Schools, Ye Htut said.

“Police shot back at them with rubber bullets and left the school as they didn't want the problem to escalate.”

“The villagers destroyed five cars and 12 motorcycles,” he said.

Demands unmet

Local activists told RFA that during Monday’s negotiations they had asked authorities not to press charges against villagers involved in the abduction and Sunday night’s unrest, but authorities had not agreed to those demands.

The authorities however agreed to stop mine operators from building fences around land for which residents have refused to accept compensation, they said.

“They agreed to a few of our requests, but they will [file charges] against five villagers,” Aung Myint Naing, a community activist from Sete village told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“They also agreed not to put up fences until the problem is solved and to consider paying compensation for crops on land where residents haven’t accepted compensation [for the land’s requisition],” said Ma Sanda, another community activist.

“They said they will start working on paying compensation within a week,” she said.

One of the mine's local managers, however, told the Associated Press the company had not given in to demands made by the activists.

Sagaing Minister for Forestry and Mining Than Htike, Monywa Police Officer Nay Htun, Salingyi Township Administrator Kyaw Thaung, District Administrator Zaw Myo Nyunt, and villagers from around the Letpadaung area attended Monday’s negotiations on the two workers’ release, the activists said.  

Frequent standoffs

Residents calling for a complete halt to the project have staged regular protests against the project in recent years, resulting in frequent standoffs with police.

The project was suspended following the 2012 crackdown, in which police fired smoke bombs containing white phosphorous and injured more than 100 protesters, including monks.

Local residents have complained officials allowed Wanbao to resume operations last year without fulfilling requirements set by a parliamentary review commission headed by Aung San Suu Kyi that recommended it be allowed to continue with safeguards and higher compensation  for confiscated land.

The commission’s inquiry also resulted in a revised deal for the mine, which provides a greater share of profits to the Myanmar government and immediate communities.

But residents have said the new rates are still too low to make up for the loss of their farmland and livelihoods, refusing the offers.

Reported by Yadanar Oo, Tin Aung Khine, and Kyaw Zaw Win for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.