Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Friday demanded an apology from local authorities for a violent crackdown against a group of villagers and monks protesting a controversial China-backed copper mine in northwestern Burma which left scores injured, some severely.
Speaking in Monywa city, near the site of the Letpadaung Copper Mine in Sagaing division’s Sarlingyi township, she acknowledged that both the demonstrators and mining company had valid arguments over the project, but condemned Thursday’s pre-dawn raid by police to disperse protest camps.
“I want to ask, ‘What was their purpose of doing this?’ Frankly, there’s no need to act like this. I had hoped the situation could be resolved peacefully," the Nobel laureate said after meeting with representatives of the protesters and officials from the mine management.
“We know that police officials are responsible for what happened but we need to know why they did it. I think the monks need an apology.”
Protesters had been camping out at the mine site since Nov. 18 and had ignored orders by authorities to leave on Tuesday and Wednesday before police entered by force at around 3:00 a.m. Thursday, using tear gas, water cannons and, reportedly, a chemical—local media called “phosphorus bombs”—which caused severe burns to protesters and set shelters ablaze.
The authorities denied a chemical weapon was used, saying they used smoke bombs to disperse the protesters.
At the height of the protest, as many as 2,000 villagers and their supporters, including hundreds of Buddhist monks, widely considered the moral authority in Burma, were present at the site, spread out in six different camps.
Many of the estimated 80 injured suffered burns.
“It is too bad that the monks and civilians were injured during the crackdown. The injured are in serious condition. I saw them with my own eyes,” Aung San Suu Kyi said.
“The police officers and other authorities said that they were very sad about the situation and that they plan to investigate. I understand that they also plan to apologize to the monks,” she said.
“We know that police officials are responsible for what happened, but we need to know why they did it.”
Call for calm
The opposition leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) called for calm in solving local disputes in Burma, which has undergone rapid political and economic reform since President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government took power from the former military regime last March.
“We must not use hate to develop our country. We should solve our problems in the best way possible,” she said.
“It is normal [for residents] to protect their area and their environment, depending on the situation. This is an attitude that we should have.”
Aung San Suu Kyi said that parliament had approved plans to create a commission of inquiry into the project “as soon as possible” which would include local village representatives. She said that parliament would make a decision based on the commission’s findings which would attempt to take all interests into account.
“I hope the commission can do something to build an understanding between both sides,” she said.
The Leptadaung Copper Mine is jointly owned by Wan Bao Co., a subsidiary of Chinese arms manufacturer North China Industries Corp. (Norinco), and the Burmese military’s Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd. (UMEHL).
The project was approved by Burma’s former military junta and has been criticized for not taking into account the interests of area residents.
The mine site has been the center of growing unrest since December 2011 when villagers say they awoke in the middle of the night to find Wan Bao officials dumping waste on their farmland and destroying their crops.
Protests grew in August and September, when thousands of villagers, who say more than 8,000 acres (3,237 hectares) of farmland from 26 villages have been illegally confiscated to make way for the mine, staged demonstrations in the area to demand a halt to the project.
Aung San Suu Kyi said that while local interests must be taken into account when solving such disputes, Burma, as a growing nation, must honor its international obligations, particularly with its giant neighbor to the north.
“We have never regarded the People's Republic of China as our benefactor. But it is our neighboring country so we want to be a friend. Because we are neighbor, we have to continue our friendship regardless of whether we like them or not,” she said.
“We want to stand as good friends not only with China but other neighboring countries as well.”
She said that the project must be allowed to continue so that observers could determine whether its implementation is truly harmful to the region.
“Deals were done under the previous military regime without taking into account the wishes of the people, and we are suffering as a result of these,” she said, but added that Burma “should honor its commitments nonetheless.”
Even in cases where the people’s interests were not taken into account, she said, some agreements must be honored “so that the country’s image will not be hurt.”
“You can’t decide to abandon a promise just because you didn’t make it.”
China’s ambassador to Burma had earlier said Beijing will stop backing Wan Bao’s development of the mine if the project does not benefit Burma.
But on Friday, Chinese Embassy spokesman Gao Mingbo issued a statement of support for the copper mine.
“It is a joint venture between the business communities of China and [Burma] and will bring benefits to both sides,” he said.
“Issues such as relocation, compensation, environmental protection and profit sharing regarding this project were jointly settled through negotiations by the two sides and meet [Burmese] laws and regulations.”
Last year, President Thein Sein cancelled a plan to build the Chinese-backed Mytisone dam in northern Burma’s conflict-ridden Kachin state that was to provide hydroelectricity to China, after mass opposition among locals.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.