Prodemocracy People’s Defense Force (PDF) paramilitaries clashed with junta security forces guarding two Chinese-owned copper mine projects over the weekend in the country’s war-torn Sagaing region after the military attacked two villages in the area, PDF fighters said Monday.
The fighting broke out on Sunday when junta troops, who had been sent to defend the mines following threats by local PDF groups, entered the villages of Shwe Pan Khaing and Thedaw Gyi in Sagaing’s Yinmarbin township, Myaunk Yamar PDF spokesman Ko Khant told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“It was a military security column guarding the Yangtse and Wanbao projects,” he said, referring to the Chinese companies that operate the two mines in collaboration with the military’s Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) company.
“They left from Yinmarbin township on May 5 and spent the night in Wadan village and Tal Bin Kan village, in [neighboring] Salingyi township. They then started an offensive against Shwe Pan Khaing and Thedaw Gyi villages on the Yinmarbin township side.”
Ko Khant said that the PDF did not attack the troops guarding the copper mine projects and only engaged with them after they began raiding the villages, adding that the fighting had lasted for around four hours.
Last week, the junta vowed to defend the suspended copper mines, seen as a key source of revenue for the military regime, after the PDF threatened to destroy them if owners resume operations.
Following the military’s Feb. 1, 2021, coup, employees walked off the job to join the anti-junta Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), reducing the mines’ operating capacity by more than 80 percent.
In early April, junta Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin met with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in eastern China’s Anhui province in what analysts said signaled Myanmar’s desire for deeper economic ties to its northern ally. Not long after the trip, residents of Salingyi reported that workers were being called back to the mines to restart the projects after more than a year of downtime, prompting threats from the PDF.
Sit Naing, spokesman for the Salingyi PDF, told RFA that his and other PDF groups “will not attack them if they do not resume the projects.”
“We didn’t start the fight in this incident – they began using weapons to threaten residents of nearby villages, telling them not to come close to the projects. It appears that the projects are being restarted, given this kind of action.”
Sit Naing said that around 200 troops have been deployed to guard each project. At the Wanbao mine, machine guns were positioned around the project targeting the villages, he added.
“They have even fired 120-millimeter guns into the villages,” he said.
“Tensions between the junta troops and the PDF have been high for three days. The junta forces fired three artillery shells at villages in Yinmarbin township last night.”
Sit Naing said the three shells had set fire to several houses and caused residents to flee, but no one was hurt. Heavy artillery shelling was reported in other villages on Monday, he said.
No official statement was released by the junta in connection with the clashes.
Attempts by RFA to contact junta Deputy Minister of Information Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun about the clashes went unanswered on Monday.
Residents of the area where the copper projects are located have held daily protests demanding that Beijing respect the wishes of the people of Myanmar by shutting them down, and on April 25, nearly 560 prodemocracy groups sent an open letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping urging him to stop supporting the junta through the mines and other China-backed development projects.
According to Myanmar’s Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, 32 Chinese garment factories were set on fire in the early months of the coup, while PDF attacks on Chinese projects have damaged the water supply pipeline to one of the mines in Sagaing, as well as a gas pipeline and nickel plant in Mandalay region.
Translated by Kyaw Min Htun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.