Myanmar activists held over latest copper mine protest

YANGON Wed Nov 28, 2012 4:17am EST

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YANGON (Reuters) - Police in Myanmar have arrested six leaders of the latest protest against the planned expansion of a Chinese-run copper mine, with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi planning to visit the area to hear grievances.

In September, thousands of villagers near the Monywa mine in northwest Myanmar protested against the $1 billion expansion project, taking advantage of new, if fragile, freedoms granted since the end of military rule last year.

The villagers say that under the project in the Sagaing region more than 7,800 acres of land have been unlawfully confiscated.

In the latest protest, activists led a demonstration in the commercial capital, Yangon, on Monday to highlight the plight of villagers and were arrested the next day, supporters said.

"They were taken to Insein Central Prison yesterday and charged with creating public mischief. The hearing was adjourned to December 3," activist Win Cho told Reuters on Wednesday.

The authorities are now moving to end the protest at the Monywa site.

In a statement read on state television late on Tuesday, the Home Ministry said protesters at six camps at the site had to leave by midnight so that a parliamentary commission could carry out an investigation.

It said all project work had been halted since November 18 because of those protests.

Activists and locals said some protesters were still at the site in the early hours of Wednesday, past the deadline.

"So far as I know, there were some protesters there as of 4 a.m. this morning. I haven't been able to contact them ever since," Myo Thant, a member of the 88 Generation Students Group who had gone to Sagaing to monitor the situation, told Reuters.

A Buddhist monk from the region, who did not want to be named, also told Reuters by phone that protesters had stayed on, adding that the authorities had not moved in immediately to clear them off.

Ohn Kyaing, a lawmaker from Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party, said the Nobel Peace laureate intended to visit the area on Thursday.

The NLD wanted an independent commission set up to investigate the situation "and handle it with transparency", he said.

Local sources told Reuters in September that four of 26 villages at the project site had already been displaced, along with monasteries and schools.

The copper mine is run by a unit of China North Industries Corp, a leading Chinese weapons manufacturer, under a deal signed in June 2010 after Canada's Ivanhoe Mines Ltd pulled out in 2007.

It is backed by the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL).

Under the military regime that ruled Myanmar for almost half a century until 2011, UMEHL operated with impunity.

Now, emboldened by reforms under President Thein Sein, who took office in March 2011, villagers are pushing back and testing the limits of newfound freedoms, including a relaxation of laws on public protests.

(Reporting by Aung Hla Tun; Editing by Alan Raybould and Jonathan Thatcher)

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