YANGON, Myanmar – Myanmar’s government apologized for a violent crackdown on Buddhist monks and other foes of a copper mine in northwest Myanmar, which was the biggest use of force against demonstrators since reformist President Thein Sein took office last year.
Religious Affairs Minister Thura Myint Maung formally apologized for the violence to 29 senior monks at a ceremony in Yangon on Friday. His remarks were carried by all state media Saturday.
He said the government felt “extreme sorrow that monks and other people were wounded in the copper mine incident,” which he said was mishandled by local authorities in Monywa in the northwest region of Sagaing.
Local authorities would “ensure that such undesirable incidents do not occur again,” he said.
In the Nov. 29 crackdown, police used water cannons, tear gas and smoke bombs to break up an 11-day occupation of the mine project. The mine is a joint venture between a military-controlled holding company and a Chinese mining company. Protesters say it is causing environmental, social and health problems, and want the project halted.
Nearly 100 people, mostly Buddhist monks, were injured during the crackdown, mostly by burns that protesters said were caused by incendiary devices hurled by police.
The crackdown was reminiscent of those the country faced under military rule. It stirred anger because of the violence against monks, who are held in high regard by the Buddhist country.
The heavy-handed action indicated the government is still unsure where to draw the line on public protests. Thein Sein’s government has been hailed for releasing hundreds of political prisoners and for implementing laws allowing public demonstrations and labor strikes.
Many prominent figures, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, had urged authorities to apologize.
Monks have staged protests since the crackdown, including one in Mandalay on Saturday that drew several hundred dressed in their saffron-colored robes.
A prominent monk at the Mandalay protest, Shin Wirathu, said the apology was not sufficient.
“The government should apologize directly to the monks who were injured and are being treated in hospitals,” he said, adding that those responsible for unleashing the violence have not been punished.
After the crackdown, the government appointed Suu Kyi to lead a commission investigating the violent dispersal of peaceful protesters and to advise whether the mine project should continue. The appointment of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate to head the probe gives it credibility that the army-backed government lacks.
Separately, Suu Kyi on Saturday visited the hometown of her father, the country’s independence hero, Gen. Aung San, who was assassinated in 1947 when she was just 2.
Thousands welcomed Suu Kyi at a football field in the town of Natmauk, a few hours drive north of Yangon.
“I feel like I am returning to my hometown,” the former political prisoner told the adoring crowd. “I feel as though you all are my relatives.”
Associated Press writer Yadana Htun contributed to this report from Mandalay, Myanmar.