Burma's President Thein Sein on Saturday asked opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to lead an investigation into the bloody police crackdown on protests against a Chinese-backed copper mine and to determine the fate of the controversial project.
The move came a day after Aung San Suu Kyi criticized the crackdown against a group of villagers and Buddhist monks protesting the mine project in northwestern Burma which left scores injured, some severely.
Aung San Suu Kyi will lead a 30-member commission to look into the "truth" behind the predawn raid by riot police on the protest sites surrounding the Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing division’s Salingyi township, according to a statement signed by Thein Sein and posted on his office website and reports by state television.
The panel should also decide whether the project should be allowed to continue, the reports said.
The commission includes a broad cross-section of interests, including two prominent former student activists, Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, several lawmakers, representatives from political parties, villagers in the mine area, and government officials.
It also includes an official from the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd, the Burmese military owned company which operates the mine project on a joint venture with a unit of China North Industries Corp, a Chinese weapons manufacturer.
Thein Sein said the inquiry should be completed by the end of December, according to the statement.
Riot police cracked down on the protests during a pre-dawn raid on 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 had used smoke bombs.
Aung San Suu Kyi had visited the copper mine area on Friday, meeting with mining company officials, activists and injured protesters, and demanded that local authorities apologize to the monks hurt in the crackdown.
She did not call for a suspension of the project as demanded by activists to allow for impact studies amid allegations of mass evictions and pollution.
Thousands of villagers say they had been illegally evicted from more than 8,000 acres (3,237 hectares) of farmland to make way for the mine.
The protests against the project began a year ago when villagers said they awoke in the middle of the night to find Wan Bao officials dumping waste on their farmland and destroying their crops.
Aung San Suu Kyi said on Friday 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.
Television reports said local police on Saturday met with senior monks in Monywa city, near the site of the mining project, and "expressed sorrow" over the injuries caused during the crackdown.
But many monks termed it as a half-hearted apology that they could not accept.
A protest monk in Mandalay said the organizers had invited about 20 monks who had protested at the mining site but only a few showed up for the "police face-saving" event in Monywa.
“We cannot accept this kind of apology—which is not sincere because they did not apologize to the ones who were in the protest. They should come forward and apologize to the injured monks," said the monk.
"The story, the photos are in the media that they are apologizing but in reality, this is misleading,” he said.
On Saturday, monks led protests over the copper mine incident in Rangoon and Mandalay, the two biggest commercial cities.
About 40 monks accompanied by about 60 residents held a peaceful march in Rangoon and about 100 monks demonstrated in Mandalay, reports said.
Reported by RFA's Burmese service. Translated by Kyaw Min Htun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.