U.S. State Department officials met with monks and activists in Mandalay on Wednesday to inquire about disputes over a controversial copper mine in northern Burma, monastery representatives said, amid ongoing demonstrations.
The visit by the delegation, which included the department’s Director for Southeast Asia Ike Reed and the U.S. Embassy’s chief political and economic officer Douglas Sonnek, follows a brutal police raid last week on demonstrators opposed to the China-backed Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing division.
Scores of protesters, including dozens of monks, were injured in the pre-dawn raid on protest camps, prompting a national outcry in the Buddhist-majority country.
The U.S. officials met with senior monks at Mandalay’s Masoeyein Monastery, which has supported the anti-mine demonstrations, and with two women residents of villages near the mine site who had taken part in the protests.
Masoeyein’s abbot Wirathu said the two sides had a wide-ranging discussion touching on a number of political issues facing Burma.
“They asked about our attitudes and opinions, and we answered with what we think. We discussed democracy, peace, human rights, the rule of law, and the role of the Sangha [Buddhist community],” he told RFA’s Burmese service.
Photos posted on social media sites of monks who had suffered burns, which monks and local media said were from a chemical security forces had used to disperse the crowds, drew online outrage, though authorities have denied chemicals were used in the crackdown.
Many of the monks who were injured in the raid were taken for medical treatment to hospitals in Mandalay, where some remain in critical condition.
Call for apology
Monks have staged protests in cities across Burma since Friday to call for a full apology for the crackdown, which has come under heavy fire from human rights groups who said it reminded the public of the decades of brutal rule under Burma's former military junta.
Burmese President Thein Sein’s new quasi-civilian government took power last March and has since implemented sweeping democratic reforms, including allowing the public the right to demonstrate.
Government officials recently formed a commission to investigate the dispute over the mining project, which is being developed as a joint venture between the Burmese military’s Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd. (UMEHL) and China’s top arms manufacturer North China Industries Corp. (Norinco).
The commission, announced Saturday, was initially tasked with investigating actions taken against protesters, but according to a revised order from the president’s office, the raid is no longer the focus of the inquiry.
Television reports on Saturday 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 said the apology was insincere and that they could not accept it.
Monks in four cities and towns across the country are set to stage a sit-in demonstration against the crackdown on Thursday.
“If we don’t have any response from authorities from the sit-in protest, we will ask the monks not to move anywhere until we get what we want,” Thawbita, a monk organizing the protest, told RFA’s Burmese service.
The sit-in will be held from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. in Rangoon, Mandalay, Taunggyi, Sagaing, Chauk, Pakokku, Meiktila, and Wakema, he said.
Laypeople across the country have also demonstrated in solidarity with the monks and mine activists.
In Gyobin Kauk, Bago division, more than 100 people have protested the crackdown for the past three days, marching around downtown twice a day while wearing T-shirts calling for an end to police violence.
“We have about 130 protesters marching today,” Maung Maung, a Youth Network protest leader, said Wednesday.
“The front side of the T-shirts we are wearing reads, ‘Care for and protect our nationality and religion,’ and the back side has a picture of the Letpadaung mountains. On the bottom of this picture, it reads ‘Stop the violence,’ referring to the brutal crackdown on protesters,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.