MONYWA, Myanmar – Security forces’ use of water cannons, tear gas and smoke bombs to clear protesters from a copper mine in northwestern Myanmar early Thursday, wounding villagers and Buddhist monks, was the harshest crackdown against demonstrators since the reformist government of President Thein Sein took office last year.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who arrived in the area hours later on a previously scheduled visit, said she would try to negotiate a solution.
In a statement broadcast on state television, the government initially acknowledged using the riot-control measures but denied using excessive force. In an unusual move, it later retracted the statement without explanation.
Monks and other protesters had serious burns after the crackdown at the Letpadaung mine near the town of Monywa. Protesters who oppose the mine expansion’s impact on villagers and the environment had occupied the area for 11 days.
The police action risks becoming a public relations and political fiasco for Thein Sein’s government, which has been touting its transition to democracy after almost five decades of repressive military rule.
This is unacceptable, said Ottama Thara, 25, a monk who was at the protest. This kind of violence should not happen under a government that says it is committed to democratic reforms.
Police moved early Thursday to disperse protesters after some heeded earlier warnings to leave.
Suu Kyi, elected to parliament after spending most of the last two decades under house arrest, unexpectedly went to the mine to meet with its operators before making her speech in nearby Kan-Kone.
I already met one side. I met with mine operators. I want to meet with villagers and protesters, she told the crowd. I want to negotiate hearing from both sides.
Some of Suu Kyi’s comments suggested that she may not fully embrace the tactics of the protesters.
When dealing with people, I don’t always follow what people like. I only tell the truth, she said. I will work for the long-term benefit of the country.
Villagers affected by the mine claim they did not receive satisfactory compensation and demand a more comprehensive environmental impact assessment.
The mine is a joint venture between a Chinese company and a company controlled by Myanmar’s military.