Suu Kyi to Head Probe into Copper Mine

By Yadana Htun 2 December 2012

MANDALAY — Burma’s government has appointed a commission led by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to investigate the recent violent dispersal of peaceful protesters at a copper mine and advise whether the project should continue.

State television announced Saturday that the 30-member commission was created by a presidential order.

Security forces on Thursday ousted protesters at the Letpadaung mine near Monywa in northwestern Burma. Dozens of villagers and Buddhist monks were hurt, mostly with burns they said were caused by incendiary devices. The crackdown was the biggest use of force against demonstrators since the reformist government of President Thein Sein took office last year.

The protesters say the mine is causing environmental, social and health problems. The project is a joint venture between a Chinese firm and a company controlled by Burma’s military.

The appointment of Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to head the probe gives it credibility that the army-backed government lacks, even though political and economic liberalization under 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.

Many in Burma remain suspicious of the military and regard China as an aggressive and exploitative investor that helped support its rule.

Suu Kyi visited the area after the crackdown, meeting with mining company officials, activists and injured protesters, as well as security officials. In speeches to residents, she said the use of force was not justified, but also suggested that protesters might have to compromise on the mine issue because Burma was honor-bound to respect contracts, even if they were done under the previous military regime. Government officials have said repeatedly that shutting down the project could scare off much-needed foreign investment.

Monks were among the most seriously wounded protesters, many with severe burns, and fellow monks have been holding protests to demand an apology from the authorities.

Monks are widely admired for their social activism as well as for their spiritual beliefs in deeply religious Burma.

The previous military government cracked down violently on monks who were leading pro-democracy protests in 2007 that came to be known as the “saffron revolution,” from the color of their robes.

In a possible sign of government nervousness about possible unrest, police in Rangoon on Saturday night detained a prominent former activist monk, Shin Gambira, his mother said.

Shin Gambira, whose lay name is Nyi Nyi Lwin, played a prominent role in the 2007 demonstrations until he was arrested. He was released from prison in January.

It was unclear whether his detention Saturday was related to protests in Rangoon against the crackdown at the Letpadaung mine.

State television also reported that a group of police paid respects to senior Buddhist monks in Monywa on Saturday and “expressed sorrow over the accidental injury caused by tear gas during the handling of protest,” explaining that they were carrying out their duties.

Many monks said they were not satisfied with the police expression of regret.

“We will not accept this kind of apology. They did not invite any monks who were involved in the protest or injured in the crackdown but only apologized to senior monks who did not even visit the injured monks,” said U Pandita, a monk from the Monywa monastery.

U Pandita welcomed the creation of Suu Kyi’s investigating commission but said authorities must reveal who ordered the crackdown.

“Buddha teaches us to forgive, but how we can forgive without an apology to us?” said Shin Nanda Thara of the Bawdi Mandaing Monastery in Pakkoku township. “It’s like treating the wound with the wrong medicine.”

“We thought President Thein Sein was gentle and his way of handling disputes would be gentle. But now the mask on his face has fallen and we see the reality of what he is. It’s a tough situation for him to redeem and regain his good reputation in the international community, which has supported him with trust for his so-called reform process,” he said. “We still have some small hope and trust on him. Maybe he ordered for us to be dispersed, but the authorities used more force than what he ordered.”

The investigation commission includes two prominent former student activists, Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, several lawmakers, representatives from political parties, villagers from the area of the mine and government officials.

The announcement said the commission is tasked with assessing the reasons for the protests against the mine, the handling of the protests and whether the mine should continue to operate. It is to submit its findings by Dec. 31.

Associated Press writer Aye Aye Win in Rangoon contributed to this report.