Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi urged a peaceful resolution Thursday to a long running dispute over a China-backed copper mine in northern Burma following a brutal government crackdown on protesters against the project that left at least 80 people injured.
Many of the injured suffered burns but authorities denied allegations by protesters that chemical weapons were used in the pre-dawn raid although injured protesters, including monks, said their wounds stemmed from projectiles shot by riot police that burned their clothing and skin on contact.
Local media said that a form of chemical weapon had been deployed, some calling it "phosphorous bomb.”
Aung San Suu Kyi, who visited a town near the Letpadaung mine in Sagaing division hours after the pre-dawn raid on the mine site where hundreds of monks and local villagers had set up camps, told protesters she would mediate between them and the project’s Chinese investors.
But she refrained from condemning the brutal crackdown.
“I want to get this issue resolved peacefully,” Aung San Suu Kyi told a crowd of thousands gathered in Kyakone town near the mine site.
“For that I shall try my best even though I cannot guarantee anything. Such a peaceful solution would avoid harming the people and would also boost the integrity of the country,” she said.
She stressed a need for greater transparency in economic projects amid Burma’s political reforms, but warned that the country was also bound to international obligations in the project, jointly owned by Chinese arms manufacturer North China Industries Corp. (Norinco) and the Burmese military’s Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd. (UMEHL).
“Before implementing government projects we need a process of transparency. But also, if we unilaterally break off ongoing projects [with foreign firms], we stand to lose international trust,” she said, after meeting with officials from UMEHL and Norinco subsidiary Wan Bao Co., which is developing the project.
She said that if the contracts with the Chinese companies were to be cancelled, Burma would have to provide compensation in order to remain up to international standards.
“Contracts have been signed on the Letpadaung copper mining project. If unilaterally canceled, compensation must be made.”
“If Burma wants to stand up as a country commensurable with the international community, it must keep its promises.”
She said that in any negotiations she may not follow a popular path, but would do what was best for the country.
Villagers, backed by hundreds of monks and student leaders, have accused the mine developers of illegally confiscating farmland without providing adequate compensation and say they do not want pollution from the mine to destroy the area.
Protesters had been camping out at the mine site, in the Letpadaung hills in Sarlingyi township near Monywa city, since Nov. 18.
After they defied warnings to leave the camps by midnight, police overran the camps around 3:00 a.m. The authorities said they dispersed the protesters with water cannons, tear gas, and smoke bombs.
Eyewitnesses said riot police had also used unknown type of chemical that caused severe burns and made victims’ clothes catch on fire.
Some 80 people, including 30 Buddhist monks, had been hospitalized in the raid, monks and activists told RFA’s Burmese Service Thursday. At least 10 monks were missing, possibly detained, they said.
After photos of monks with severe burns posted online provoked public anger in the Buddhist-majority country, government denied authorities had used chemical weapons in the crackdown.
Nyan Tun, secretary of the central government’s Information Committee, said authorities’ actions during the raid were lawful and that they had not used chemical weapons, only teargas.
“It's not true at all that chemical weapons were used in the crackdown. We just used tear gas that police worldwide use to break up riots,” he told RFA.
“We are working according to law. We assure that we didn’t use chemical weapons,” he said.
Colonel Yu Lwin, from the Sagaing division government, said that chemicals used in smoke bombs that had been deployed by police in the raid could cause burns.
“That was teargas that police worldwide use to break up riots. The devices, which we made inside the country, are smoke bombs. The chemicals we used in those bombs could explode and burn a little bit,” he said.
But some witnesses said authorities had used not only smoke bombs but also bombs that were meant to explode and cause flames.
“I got the container of one fire bomb. It had ‘LOD 01/12/ F 95’ written on it,” a university student named Thaung Hteik said.
“If that was teargas, you would get itchiness in the eyes and throat, said Khin Maung Nyo, an expert on chemicals.
“I have never seen anyone getting burns because of teargas. It is possible those devices they used were fire bombs.”
Monks in nearby Mandalay, northern Burma’s commercial center, are planning a demonstration on Friday over the crackdown on the copper mine protests, in which monks had played a large role.
“We will do this tomorrow or today. It depends on the situation. We are planning to do this tomorrow, but it might be tonight,” monk Thawvita told RFA Thursday.
A statement by the monks demanded the immediate release of those detained and “strongly condemned the brutal crackdown” on the Letpadaung protest camps, according to Thawvita.
"The authorities must solve this problem until the monks and the people have no complaints with transparency,” the statement said.
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 Wanbao 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.
The row over the mines prompted a response on Thursday from China, which called for Burma to create a favorable environment for the project’s progress.
"Burma’s Monywa-Latpadantaung copper mine is a mutually beneficial cooperative project between China and Myanmar," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a press briefing.
The lower house of Burma’s parliament decided last week to form an independent commission to investigate the project.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.