YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Two Chinese workers at a copper mine in Myanmar have been kidnapped by activists who are demanding the project be halted, the company and villagers said Monday.
The Wanbao Mining company released a statement condemning the "unprovoked act" and demanding the immediate release of the two 23-year-old contractors. They were abducted Sunday as they were carrying out a land survey, the company said.
The government sent a team to try to negotiate their release, but there was no word yet on progress, said Myint Thein, one of the mine's managers.
The Letpadaung mine — a joint venture between a Myanmar military-controlled holding company and China's Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd., a unit of weapons manufacturer China North Industries Corp. — has been a focal point of land rights disputes in recent years.
Villagers claim thousands of acres (hectares) of farmland was seized to allow its expansion and that the deal, approved when the country was still under military dictatorship, lacked transparency. They worry that the mine is causing environmental, social and health problems.
A violent crackdown on protesters in late 2012 injured more than 100 people, mostly Buddhist monks, when police fired smoke bombs containing white phosphorous.
Amid an outcry, work at the mine was temporarily halted. The mining contract was renegotiated to ensure that millions of dollars go toward community development projects and to pay compensation to villagers, paving the way for the resumption of activities last year.
But activists and villagers have continued to express displeasure.
It was not immediately clear Monday if any specific group was behind the kidnappings. At least two different groups have been named.
Presidential adviser and deputy information minister Ye Htut told Radio Free Asia that the government is trying to resolve the situation peacefully, but warned the villagers to avoid provoking the police.
A Myanmar national also was detained Sunday but was released soon afterward, the company said.
"The Chinese workers will be released if they halt the Letpadaung project and if they remove the barbed wire and allow us to work on our farmland," said Htay Myint, a villager from nearby Hsede village, a center of opposition to the copper mine.
A Buddhist monk from Monywa contacted by phone said the situation was tense and villagers are fearful of a night-time raid because many police have been deployed near Hsede, where the Chinese workers are being held.
"The villagers are waiting for a response from authorities regarding their demand. They only want to work in the fields as the planting season has come," said the monk, Sanda Thiri.
Hsede is in Monywa, a township in Sagaing region in the country's northwest.