Mar 17, 2013

Myanmar - Growing Alarm over Aung San Suu Kyi

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Critics fear the democracy icon and Nobel Prize winner is being coopted by the government

Hundreds of angry protesters confronted Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi this morning over her seeming conciliatory stance over a controversial Chinese-operated copper mine project commissioned by the government in the north of the country. It was the first time the 67-year-old Suu Kyi, who spent 15 of her 21 years in the country under house arrest, has become the target of popular protest.

Suu Kyi's motorcade was surrounded by an estimated 500 villagers protesting the Letpadaung copper mine project as she attempted to explain the controversial findings of a parliamentary inquiry which she chaired into the project.

Dismay has been growing over the Nobel Prize winner and democracy icon's seeming willingness to bend to the government in Naypyidaw over a series of issues, of which the copper mine project is the latest. The leader of the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi has also been criticized for not being more aggressive in criticizing the government of treatment of the Rohingya and Kachin minorities.

After the government cracked down violently on the protesters in November and December, authorities apologized to the Buddhist clergy who were injured and appointed Suu Kyi to chair a government-led commission to investigate. However, the report released this week contradicted an earlier Human Rights Watch report calling for full accountability from the perpetrators of the violence.

Although she spent nearly three hours with the protesters attempting to explain the commission's findings, locals repeatedly shouted: "We reject the Commission's results. We won't accept them at all."

The mine project is a joint venture between the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings and Wanbao, the operator, which is a subsidiary of Norinco, China's international weapons manufacturer and dealer. Wanbao took over the project after the Canadian mining firm Ivanhoe stepped out in 2010. The company confiscated 7,800 acres (3,156 hectares) of land in 2010, outraging villagers, who are also concerned about pollution.

The project has become a very public test of how far the government will allow protest to go. The farmers who began the protest have quickly gained support among rights groups and environmentalists and the general public across the country who are eager to attempt to exercise supposed new-found freedoms as the country has loosened the reins after six decades of repressive dictatorship.

The mine, however, has become a Myanmar government priority, especially after the government tunned the Chinese by cancelling the Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River in 2011. The Chinese contractors had planned to ship 80 percent of the power produced to China. Other protests have broken out over a major gas pipeline from the Andaman Sea to the Chinese border.

The findings of Suu Kyi's commission stated that the mine project should go ahead despite environmental concerns and widespread local opposition. The inquiry also failed to hold anyone responsible for the violent crackdown, which injured more than 100 protestors on Nov. 29.

Anger at Suu Kyi's stance on the mine grew after she gave speeches in three nearby villages Wednesday, calling on locals to stop opposing the project and accept compensation for land lost. Suu Kyi, who was accompanied by a full police escort, was forced to deliver her speech while surrounded by the protesters.

"Nothing is more important than our people," she said. "I am responsible for the good of you. Even though the Letpadaung Mountain will be gone, we can still create a good and pleasant environment for you."

"The commission findings are against the local people's will. That's why we are staging our protest," said Thaung Htike, of the People's Support Service, an activist group.

She then headed to another nearby village, Se Te, and her motorcade was again blocked by locals, who eventually let Suu Kyi into their village. Other commission members who were travelling with her were not welcome.

According to her one of her bodyguards, the opposition leader was very upset about the reaction from the crowd and he said she would continue to address the concerns of the locals until they were satisfied.

(With reporting from Irrawaddy)

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