Yangon (AsiaNews/Agencies) - A court in central Myanmar has sentenced an activist to ten years in prison for "threatening national security" after he led a protest against a controversial Chinese-backed copper mine that sparked clashes with the authorities.
The ruling casts a shadow on the country's democratic reforms long trumpeted by the government of President Thein Sein, who is set to start a visit in Europe in coming days.
It does confirm however that a climate of repression and violence has fallen on domestic critics, especially those who oppose large-scale projects like hydroelectric plants (see Myitsone dam in the northern state of Kachin) that could have a devastating impact on the environment.
Judge Kaythi Hlaing of the Shwebo city court handed Aung Soe, an activist with Myanmar's People's Support Network, a ten-year sentence on Monday after convicting him on eight charges, including "threatening religious purity", in connection with violence on 25 April.
Aung had backed hundreds of farmers protesting the seizure of their land by Wan Bao Company, which is owned by China's state-owned China North Industries Corp. (Norinco).
The latter runs a copper mine near Mount Letpadaung in northern Burma's Sagaing division, a major farming region, in cooperation with Myanmar's Ministry of Mines and industry, which is closely connected to the country's military.
Anti-mine protests are nothing new. In the summer of 2012, they had already reached a crisis point. Their latest round began last April when police cracked down on farmers trying to occupy disputed land. At least ten protesters were wounded in the violent clash, some by firearms. Fifteen agents were also injured.
Soe Thu and Maung San, two residents from the village of Setae near the Letpadaung copper mine, were also convicted for "violating orders" and "inciting riots", but they have not yet been sentenced. Their lawyers have already announced an appeal.
Last March, a commission of inquiry gave the mine the green light, despite the constant protests.
Now, four months later, operations have not started yet as villagers are still outraged by what they feel are inadequate compensation for the land they lost to expropriation.