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A number of security personnel and protesting villagers were injured in a skirmish between farmers and police near the Latpadaung copper mine on Sunday, when villagers attempted to herd cattle in the area against official orders.
The incident, which Burmese state media said resulted in the hospitalisation of five security personnel, began after dozens of villagers entered a fenced-off part of the controversial project site in central Burma’s Sagaing Division. The New Light of Myanmar reported on Monday that the villagers attacked the guards with slingshots and rocks when they were told not to graze their cattle within the area.
The report said that the Salingyi Myoma police are pursuing legal action against the villagers who have denied allegations of both trespassing and assault, claiming that the grazing land in question still belonged to them.
“The police are not here to protect us, but to protect the interests of the UMEH [Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings] and Wanbao,” said Aung Ko Oo, a resident of Mogyo Pyi Ale village. He said that locals had not yet agreed to a compensation scheme for the contested property, and that it had been unlawfully confiscated.
Aung Ko Oo added that the villagers requested permission to graze the land from a project liaison office on 23 July, but the township administrator issued a rejection notice.
After three days of failed negotiations, he said, the villagers went to the land and attempted to remove fences around the property, at which point they came under slingshot-fire by police assigned to guard the property.
He said that two villagers were also injured during the confrontation.
A township administrator, Zaw Myo Nyunt, denied that villagers were injured during the incident, and insisted that they were trespassing. He said that while police plan to pursue legal action, no one has yet been apprehended.
“It’ll be hard to identify the attackers as they were hiding behind bushes, taking aim with slingshots at the police,” he said. “At best, we will only be able to identify the leaders.”
The Latpadaung copper mine has been the site of some of the fiercest opposition to corporate land-grabbing in Burma since the start of the reform process in 2011. The project began with a 1998 agreement between Wanbao — a subsidiary of Chinese weapons manufacturer Norinco — and Burma’s state-owned UMEH.
Protests against the project, premised on local claims of land loss and environmental destruction, gained nationwide momentum in early 2012 as the mines became a symbol for both activists and Buddhists wishing to preserve the site’s religious heritage.
Encampments set up near the site, which housed protestors for several months, were brutally dispersed in November 2012 by police in an early-morning crackdown. More than 100 people were seriously injured in the raid, some with burns caused by incendiary devices believed to contain white phosphorous.
Despite the harsh police response, opposition to the project has remained strong as claims of unlawful land acquisition continue to rise. Activists claim that the project accounts for the loss of more than 7,800 acres of land from 26 villages across the nearby mountain range.