Burma's violent crackdown on protesters against a China-backed copper mine has raised doubts about President Thein Sein's reform effort as his 21-month-old quasi-civilian administration grapples with a major public backlash over the bloody raid.
The pre-dawn raid last week by security forces aimed at clearing hundreds of peaceful protesters from the mining site in northern Burma has also left some wondering whether the ex-generals at the helm of the administration have actually shed their authoritarian past.
Scores of protesters were injured, including monks campaigning for villagers, who claimed that a joint venture of the Burmese and Chinese militaries had illegally evicted them from farmland to make way for the copper mine blamed for environmental destruction.
Photos of Buddhist monks, who are highly revered in Burma and many of whom still bear the scars of the military junta's suppression of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, with serious wounds from the crackdown have circulated extensively on the Internet, dealing a major blow to the government's credibility.
Some monks had their robes and skin burned by material used by the security forces to disperse the protesters and although the government has denied that chemical weapons were used, there was very little in the way of explanation as to how that may have happened.
The aftermath of the crackdown is equally disturbing—some monks in hospitals complained they were treated as criminals or asked to go home even though their wounds were still festering while protest activists have been charged under a law that has denied them release on bail.
Several other activists with no known links to the protests have also been arrested in the past few days, including Shin Gambira, who played a key role in the saffron revolt five years ago and for which he was ordered jailed for 68 years by the then military junta.
He was released in January as part of a mass prisoner amnesty but was held on Saturday and thrown into the notorious Insein prison.
Hardly two days after Thein Sein's office announced on Saturday that a 30-member investigation commission headed by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been set up to probe the violence and determine the future of the mine, the panel's size has been trimmed down by nearly half.
No reasons were given for the scaling down.
The deadline for the commission's work has also been pushed back, in a grim reminder of a similar probe panel that was set up by Thein Sein to determine the circumstances that led to the deadly violence between Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines in Rakhine state in June and October.
Some members of that panel complained the Rakhine commission lacked teeth with inadequate support from the government. Its deadline has been postponed several times.
As news of the excessive force used by security forces plastered the front pages of newspapers across the globe, Burma's quest for reforms was dealt another blow last week—a report on the seizure of a ship’s cargo bound for the Southeast Asian country with potential nuclear uses.
North Korea had tried to ship materials suitable for uranium enrichment or missile development to Burma via China, according to Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper, citing a Japanese government seizure—conducted at the request of the U.S.—of metal pipes and high-specification aluminum alloy when the vessel docked in Tokyo in August.
The Thein Sein administration had long pledged to sever military ties with nuclear renegade North Korea.
"I think these are all very disturbing developments," said Kelley Currie, a former Asia policy adviser in the U.S. State Department.
"Just on the surface, this is not the kind of behavior that you expect from a government that has made the kind of commitment that it had made during President [Barack] Obama's historic visit to Burma hardly two weeks earlier," she said.
"It’s hard not to question the wisdom of having him go there so soon."
Currie, now an expert at Washington-based Project 2049, also asked whether Burma's crackdown on the protests was aimed at appeasing China to take any thunder out of Obama's much publicized trip.
The Letpadaung copper mine is a joint venture between China's top arms manufacturer North China Industries Corp. (Norinco) and the powerful Burmese military’s Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd. (UMEHL).
"There is this presidential visit one week and nearly a couple of weeks later, you have the Burmese government throwing a bone to China, you know, making sure there is 'not going to be another Myitsone situation,'" Currie said.
Beijing remains angry at Thein Sein's decison last year to suspend construction of a mammoth China-backed hydropower project at Myitsone in northern Burma following public opposition.
"If this is the kind of balancing that we are going to see out of this government, that is very dangerous," Currie said.
'We are afraid of China'
The crackdown occurred just a few days after Aung Min, a reputed reformer and minister in Thein Sein's office and the government’s chief negotiator in talks with ethnic armed groups, visited the mine protest site and called the peaceful demonstrations illegal and a breach of the rule of law.
Aung Min publicly admitted at his meetings, “We are afraid of China… If China asks for compensation, even the Myitsone Dam shutdown would cost U.S. $3 billion,” news reports said
Aung Min recollected that that in the 1980s, the former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping decided to cut off support to the Communist Party of Burma, weakening the Marxist insurgency against the central government.
“So we don’t dare to have a row with China!” said Aung Min, according to reports. “If they feel annoyed with the shutdown of their projects and resume their support to the communists, the economy in border areas would backslide. So you’d better think seriously.”
Citing reliable sources, Ernest Bower, the head of Southeast Asian studies at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), tweeted on Sunday that China has told Burma that it wanted "no more issues like Myitsone Dam, or there will be repercussions."
"Result is Monywa crackdown?," Bower's tweet said.
The Letpadaung copper mine and the nearby Sabetaung and Kyisintaung mines are collectively known as the Monywa Copper Project.
As Burma opens its doors to Western investors and with the United States relaxing sanctions and normalizing relations with the former pariah state, China is becoming "more nervous," the Burmese magazine Irrawaddy said in a weekend editorial entitled "Monywa Crackdown—Old Habits Die Hard."
"This ugly and brutal crackdown is an indelible black mark on Thein Sein's ostensibly reformist government," it said. "Once again, we understand that Burma's ongoing political opening remains reversible."
Beijing has long been staunch supporter of Burma’s brutal military regime and served as a lifeline by providing arms and shielded the former junta from international censure, particularly by blocking resolutions of the United Nations Security Council.
Many have criticized minister Aung Min for his "undiplomatic" suggestion that Burma’s giant neighbor China might actually try destabilize the country if it doesn’t get its way, but others have said that he was merely letting the public know the reality that Burma faces, said Aung Zaw, editor of the Irrawaddy magazine.
Aung Min is an important interlocutor for the United States and Western governments which have lifted long-running sanctions on Burma amid the reform plans unveiled by Thein Sein's government.
"It is really worrisome to see him in particular linked with this. I think this will have lots of implications, including degrading his trust level with ethnic nationalities in potential peace talks under the reform agenda," Currie said.
"Certainly from their perspective, you would expect them to look at this and wonder who it is they are really dealing with," Currie said.
Some however cautioned about any overreaction to the crackdown.
"My opinion is that the crackdown is regrettable but I think the problem people have with understanding what‘s going on in Burma is the tendency to oversimplify a very complex situation and to expect that this sort of transition to democratic rule will be a linear or straight forward progress," said Lex Rieffel, a former U.S. Treasury economist.
"While it is regrettable, it would be a mistake to overreact to it and impose more sanctions on the country," he said.
Rieffel, now an expert on Southeast Asia with Washington-based Brookings Institution, said it was fair for analysts to link Obama's trip to Burma, the first by a sitting U.S. president, to the perceived negative development in the country following the visit.
"When some monks are attacked as they were and when people are arrested, these things are absolutely regrettable. U.S. policy makers have properly regretted the incidents and have urged the government to take steps to prevent this from happening again," he said.
The crackdown also threw the spotlight on the Burmese military's toehold on business dating back to the military junta days and the difficulty reformers will face in introducing open competition for contracts .
“The government’s response to the Letpadaung crackdown will be crucial for determining whether military-invested projects still operate above the law in Burma,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, which is pushing the government to prosecute those responsible for the excessive use of force.
“The crackdown at the Letpadaung mine is a fundamental test case for the government’s commitment to peaceful assembly and willingness to demand accountability for abuses,” Robertson said.
Organizers of the protests were first rounded up under a provision of the law for protesting without permission but have since been charged under Section 505(b) of the Penal Code and accused of committing "an offence against the State or against the public tranquility,” lawyers said.
The particular section of the Penal Code has been identified by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, in his report to the Human Rights Council in March as not complying with international human rights standards.
"It has been employed systematically to detain political activists and those who oppose the government," a joint statement by about 70 Burmese and overseas nongovernmental organizations said, calling for that section to be repealed.
The statement called for the suspension of the mine project in order for there to be a thorough assessment of its impacts on local communities and the environment, for measures to be put in place to mitigate future negative impacts and compensation paid for damages already done.
"This violence is the latest example that reforms in Burma are only superficial; there is a long way to go for freedom of expression, assembly and association, land rights and the rule of law to be respected in Burma," it said.