Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has criticised the forcible crackdown on protesters at a mine in the country’s northwest that has left dozens injured, including Buddhist monks.
On Friday, Suu Kyi met police behind the crackdown on the mine protest and was due to hear villagers’ grievances in a bid to mediate an end to the dispute.
The crackdown on the rally early on Thursday was the toughest since a new reform-minded government took power last year, replacing decades of outright military rule.
Speaking to a crowd of more than 10,000 in the area on Thursday, Suu Kyi, head of the parliamentary opposition, said she was ready to help find a peaceful end to the standoff between authorities and protesters, who allege mass evictions have taken place to make way for the mine.
“After getting both points of view, I want to negotiate my best,” she said, adding: “I can’t guarantee whether I will succeed or not. But I believe I will… if the people will hold my hand in finding the solution.”
Activists are calling for work to be suspended at the Letpadaung copper mine – a joint venture between Chinese firm Wanbao and military-owned Myanmar Economic Holdings – to allow environmental and social impact studies.
Monks, villagers and student activists occupied the mine for 11 days before police used water cannons, tear gas and smoke bombs to break up the protest.
Weapons that protesters described as flare guns caused severe burns to protesters and set shelters ablaze. A nurse at a Monywa hospital said 27 monks and one other person were admitted there to be treated for burns.
Suu Kyi visited the injured protesters on Thursday, as well as meeting with mining company officials and local activists.
She has taken a soft line on the conflict over the project, noting that many people asked her to help stop the project at once, but saying she did not know details of the original contract and a parliamentary investigating committee had yet to do its work.
She went on to suggest that Myanmar should honour the contracts establishing the project, especially since they involved a neighbouring country.
She said the deals were done under the previous military regime without taking into account the wishes of the people, and ”we are suffering as a result of these”, but that Myanmar should honour its commitments nonetheless.
She said that even in some cases where the people’s interest was not taken into account, the agreement should be followed “so that the country’s image will not be hurt”.
“You can’t decide that you can’t keep the promise that you didn’t give,”‘ she said.
The government’s position is similar, with senior officials publicly stating that that the protesters’ demands to stop operating the mine risked scaring off foreign investment in Myanmar’s long-neglected economy.
The protest is the latest major example of increased activism by citizens since the elected government took over last year. Street demonstrations have been legalised, and are generally tolerated, though detentions have occurred in some cases.
Political and economic liberalisation under President Thein Sein has won praise from Western governments, which have eased sanctions imposed on the previous military government because of its poor record on human and civil rights.
However, the military’s position in Myanmar’s government remains strong, and some critics fear that democratic gains could be temporary.