Burma: repression of anti-mine protesters

Burma’s President Thein Sein asked opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Dec. 1 to head an investigation into violence over the planned expansion of the Chinese-owned Latpaduang copper mine at the northern town of Monywa (Sagaing region, see map). The move comes two days after riot police cleared protesters from the site with baton charges, water cannons, tear gas, smoke bombs and—acording to Buddhist monks on the scene—some kind of incendiary devices. At least 50 people were injured, including more than 20 monks. Acitivsts put the number of injured at nearly 100. Images from Monywa’s hospital of burned monks appeared in social media and drew condemnation from around the world. 

Local farmers, monks and activists have been protesting against what they say are forced evictions to allow for the expansion of the mine, Burma’s largest. The farmers started their protest in June, saying they were forced to accept a deal two years ago under which they gave up their land in return for new housing and financial compensation. 

Suu Kyi was brought in to moderate in the aftermath of the violence, and demanded an apology for the police action. “We know that police officials are responsible for what happened but we need to know why they did it,” Suu Kyi told reporters. “I think the monks need an apology.”

In an attempt to cool anti-Chinese sentiment, however, the veteran dissident struck a conciliatory tone towards Beijing—and declined to back calls for an immediate halt to work on the mine: “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.” 

The mine is jointly owned by Burma’s military and Chinese arms manufacturer Norinco, and the billion-dollar expansion project covers several thousand hectares. The company maintains that the deal with the farmers was voluntary, and that only a small minority rejected it. “Issues such as relocation, compensation, environmental protection and profit sharing…were jointly settled through negotiations by the two sides and meet Myanmar’s laws and regulations,” the Chinese embassy in Rangoon said in a statement.

The US State Department issued a statement voicing concern over the “forcible eviction” of peaceful protesters.

Monks have held vigils in solidarity with the anti-mine protesters at the Sule Pagoda in Rangoon and at Eindawyar Pagoda in Mandalay. (Mizzima, Dec. 2; AFP, Mizzima, Mizzima, Nov. 30; BBC News, Nov. 29)