A commission tasked with investigating a brutal police crackdown on protesters against a controversial China-backed copper mine has been restructured, Burmese President Thein Sein's office said Monday, after two prominent activists refused to take part in the inquiry and called for a government apology for the bloody raid.
The panel was formed Saturday to look into last week’s pre-dawn police raid on protesters at the Letpadaung copper mine site in northern Burma’s Sagaing division and the fate of the mining project itself.
The government’s crackdown, which left scores of protesters injured, came under heavy fire from human rights groups who said it reminded the public of the decades of brutal military junta rule, which ended with elections in November 2010 that led to the formation of Thein Sein's quasi-civilian government.
Two days after the naming of the 30-member commission, Thein Sein’s office said on Monday that the panel will be sliced by about half to just 16 members. No reasons were cited for the scaled-down panel.
The deadline for the commission’s report has also been postponed by a month, to Jan. 31, 2013.
The commission will still be led by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but its original secretary, National Committee on Human Rights Chairman Sitt Mying, has been replaced by Kyaw Tint Swe, former ambassador to the U.N. and vice chair of the rights committee.
The panel’s shake-up came after two prominent activists, 88 Generation Students Group leaders Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, refused to participate, saying they will keep investigating the issue independently.
“We thought that it would be more efficient if we conduct an investigation separate from the inquiry commission,” Min Ko Naing told reporters at a press conference at the 88 Generation Students Group offices in Rangoon.
“We have to listen to the voice of local residents and examine their situation.”
He said it is crucial that the government address the trauma caused to dozens of monks who were injured in the police raid.
Many of the protesting monks suffered severe burns, prompting protesters’ allegations, denied by authorities, that chemical weapons had been used in the raid.
Photos posted online of the injuries provoked anger in the Buddhist-majority country and a slew of solidarity protests over the weekend.
“We can treat the monks' physical wounds, but there could be some outcry if we can’t treat their trauma. If the government addresses such outcries by brutally cracking down further, the people will suffer more,” Min Ko Naing said.
“We have to be very careful not to lose the way to democracy,” he said.
The 88 Generation Students group called on the government to apologize to those injured in the crackdown, reconsider the mining project, and halt work on it for the period of the commission’s inquiry, according to a statement read by the group’s leader Htay Kywe at the press conference.
It also demanded that authorities release those detained for protesting against the mine and refrain from any further arrests.
Arrests and solidarity protests
At least eight activists, including Moe Thway and Aung Soe who were among the protest leaders, are currently being held pending trial in Rangoon, lawyer Robert Sann Aung said on Monday.
“They were charged under Act 505 (b) at Kyauktada police station and Pebedan Police Station,” for “public mischief,” he told RFA’s Burmese service.
“The court didn’t let them post bail although they deserve it,” he said.
Moe Thway and Aung Soe were arrested on Sunday at a rally held in solidarity with the Letpadaung protesters near the Chinese embassy in Rangoon.
The copper mine is a joint venture by the Burmese military’s Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd. (UMEHL) and Chinese arms manufacturer North China Industries Corp. (Norinco), and is being developed by Norinco subsidiary Wan Bao Co.
Also detained over the weekend was prominent activist monk Gambira, who was taken away by authorities on Saturday night, his mother told the Associated Press news agency, although it was unclear whether the detention was related to any Letpadaung protests.
Gambira, whose lay name is Nyi Nyi Lwin, is a former political prisoner who was jailed for his role in the monk-led Saffron Revolution protest movement of 2007. He was released under a presidential amnesty in January this year.
Monks led protests over the crackdown in Mandalay, Rangoon, and townships in Mandalay division over the weekend.
On Monday, over 40 monks protested in Mogoke township in the north of Mandalay division, demanding that the government respect the people’s wishes, take full responsibility for all complaints raised in the crackdown, stop violence, and take measures to punish those who violently staged the raid, said Eindaka, one of the organizers.
They also demanded the government take full responsibility for all complaints raised by monks about the crackdown.
Television reports said local police met with senior monks in Monywa city, near the site of the mining project, and "expressed sorrow" over the injuries, but many monks termed this as a halfhearted apology that they could not accept.
Eindaka said the monks did not want to wait for the results of the commission to demand action from the government.
“Inquiry commissions have often [been established] in this country, but the government doesn’t usually recognize what the commissions do. That’s why we are not waiting on the commission’s work and we have gone ahead to protest.”
Opposition to mine
Bo Than, a resident of Kan Kone village near the mine who was selected to represent locals in the inquiry commission, said he would help submit to the panel evidence of the mine’s social and environmental impact in the area.
“The local people have asked for a stop to the copper mine project. We have to submit the evidence to stop the project.”
“I will submit the evidence of the lands we lost and evidence of the side effects of the project we are facing.”
Villagers, backed by 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.
Thousands of villagers say they were illegally evicted from 8,000 acres (3,000 hectares) of farmland to make way for the mine.
Following protests against the project that began a year ago, hundreds of protesters camped out at the mine in mid-November.
When they refused to leave after warnings last week, police raided the camps in the early hours of Nov. 29, using tear gas, water cannons, and smoke bombs, according to the authorities, and setting the camps ablaze.
Some monks who suffered burns in the raid were taken for treatment to Mandalay, the nearest major city, where monks are struggling to care of those in critical condition. Some have also been told to go home.
Prominent local monks in Mandalay have formed a committee to take care of the injured.
“The injured monks need long-term treatment. Some will have surgery. We need money and people to take care of them,” Thawvita, a member of the committee, told RFA’s Burmese service.
At least five monks in the Mandalay hospital are in need of surgery, local monk Withutasara told RFA’s Burmese service.
“U Takekanyana, a monk who was injured badly, needs surgery for the second time because his condition is getting worse. The doctors suggest he go to Singapore to get better treatment, but the government didn’t give him a visa,” he said.
“There are four [other] monks who will need surgery in the future.”
Thu, a monk who has been helping injured monks at the hospital, said over 30 monks had been asked to go home.
“The doctors said that they will send 31 monks back home because they are getting better, but they still need to be in hospital.
Although they have slight injuries, they could face infections from these or fever and pain,” he said.
“I am discussing this with the doctors because their condition is still serious.”
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.