Myanmar’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 on 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 Myanmar. 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 Burmese 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 Myanmar’s military.
The appointment of Aung San 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 Myanmar remain suspicious of the military and regard China as an aggressive and exploitative investor that helped support its rule.
Aung San 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 Myanmar 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 Myanmar.
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 Yangon 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 on Saturday was related to protests in Yangon 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.