What's more, Thein Sein appoints Aung San Suu Kyi to investigate
In an unprecedented move, Burmese authorities have apologized to the Buddhist clergy a day after a pre-dawn raid on copper mine protesters that injured dozens of monks in central Burma.
The mine, jointly owned by the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd and China’s Wan Bao Company, has become the latest flashpoint between the country’s newly awakened citizenry and a government that is attempting to feel its way gingerly toward liberalizing.
Police used water cannons, tear gas and smoke bombs to raid camps in an effort to break up the protest at around 2:30 am on Thursday. Weapons that protesters described as flare guns caused severe burns to protesters and set shelters ablaze. The crackdown is considered to be the most violent response to civil disobedience since President Thein Sein took office last year.
More than 300 residents from 12 villages have staged protests for the past four months over the project, citing environmental destruction, forced relocations and illegal land confiscation. They say more than 7,800 acres of land from 26 villages under the shadow of the Letpadaung mountain range have been seized to make way for the project that began last year. Since mid-November, protesters have been disrupting workers by linking arms to block the path of trucks at the construction site, and erecting camps nearby.
It isn’t the first time protest has erupted against environmentally questionable projects, especially Chinese-owned ones. In February, the government stopped construction on the Myitsone Damon the Irrawaddy River in the face of public protest. It also closed down a planned coal-fired energy plant at Dawei on the southern coast, although that was said to be helped along by questions whether the plant was economically viable.
President Thein Sein now has appointed Opposition Leader and Nobel Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi to head a 30-member commission created by Thein Sein to determine whether the mine should be allowed to continue. The villagers have been protesting for several months against a US$1 billion-odd expansion of the mine, complaining that their land was appropriated by the previous military regime.
In a ceremony on Saturday in Monywa, a business town northwest of Mandalay and three miles from the protest ground, the Sagaing Division Police Chief San Yu told 10 senior monks that the protesters had refused to vacate the area despite warnings and used clergymen as human shields.
“When the security forces charged in, the protesters ran away and only monks remained. I feel sorry for what happened. It’s an accident,” he said, earning loud boos from the audience of more than 50 people, which was still outnumbered by security personnel.
Even though the ceremony was aimed at appeasing the monks, those actively involved in the demonstration boycotted the event, according to a Buddhist monk called Teza who sits on the protest committee.
The 29-year-old monk explained that the shotgun confession ceremony was between the authorities and Sangha Maha Nayaka, a group of senior monks in the town. Some complained that the group of elder clerics was handpicked by the government to keep the younger monks in line.
“Even though they apologized to us, we have no forgiveness for them,” Teza told The Irrawaddy, adding that despite being trained in the Buddhist principle of loving kindness and being regarded as “men of forgiveness,” the monks involved would not pardon the security forces.
“What would happen in the future if we accept their apologies whenever they did wrong to us?” he asked. “So if the senior monks accept their apologies, it won’t reflect our views because they never supported us in the protest.”
“Only the government’s vow to cancel the project would earn our forgiveness,” added Teza.
The Saturday afternoon ceremony seemed to take place without the knowledge of most Monywa residents. Ant Maung, a poet who resides in the area, said that he only learned about the event shortly before noon.
“I only heard about it a few minutes ago,” said the 80-year-old. “I think it happened because of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” he added, referring to the Burmese opposition leader’s request during a public meeting in Monywa on Friday for the government to express regret for the violent crackdown.
“But making an apology is not enough,” he told The Irrawaddy. “The government needs to fulfill the people’s wish—a complete shutdown of the project.”
On Friday, the United States said it was worried about the “forcible eviction” of peaceful protesters. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the White House has been urging Naypyidaw to ensure security forces exercise maximum restraint and protect the right of free assembly.
Meanwhile, members of the 88 Generation Students group have arrived in Monywa to hear complaints from protesters and local residents living near the copper mine.
Kyaw Phyo Tha, The Irrawaddy
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