Myanmar mine protesters reject official report

By AYE AYE WIN | March 12, 2013 | 5:29 PM EDT

A man reads a state-run newspaper as a Buddhist monk walks past to collect morning alms in Yangon, Myanmar, Tuesday, March 12, 2013. An eagerly awaited official report has confirmed that police in Myanmar used smoke bombs that contain phosphorus during a crackdown on anti-mine protesters last year that left 108 people with burns, mostly Buddhist monks. The report also recommended the controversial Chinese-backed project continue. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Opponents of a nearly $1 billion copper mine in northwestern Myanmar expressed outrage Tuesday over a government-ordered report that said the project should continue and that refrained from demanding punishment for police involved in a violent crackdown on protesters.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi chaired the investigation commission that produced the report, which was released Monday night. It could pose a problem for Suu Kyi by identifying her with the pro-growth policies of the government against the interests of grassroots people's movements.

President Thein Sein appointed the commission after police cracked down on protesters at the Letpadaung mine Nov. 29, leaving scores hospitalized with serious burns. Most of the people burned were Buddhist monks. Thwe Thwe Win, a protest leader, said Tuesday that demonstrations will resume.

"I am very dissatisfied, and it is unacceptable," she said. "There is no clause that will punish anyone who had ordered the violent crackdown. Action should be taken against the person who gave the order."

Suu Kyi is scheduled to travel to the mine area, in Monywa township, 760 kilometers (450 miles) north of Yangon, to talk with the protesting villagers Wednesday.

Protesters say the mine, a joint venture between China's Wan Bao mining company and a Myanmar military conglomerate, causes environmental, social and health problems and should be shut down.

The report said the operation should not be halted, even as it acknowledged that the mine lacked strong environmental protection measures and would not create more jobs for local people. The report said scrapping the mine could create tension with China and could discourage badly needed foreign investment.

Those seeking to stop the project contend that the $997 million joint venture deal, signed in May 2010, did not undergo parliamentary scrutiny because it was concluded under the previous military regime.

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

"The commission should think about the welfare of their own people, poor local villagers, rather than good relations with China," Thwe Thwe said.

Aung Thein, an activist lawyer who works with the protesters, said the assertion that the contract should be honored to maintain good relations was "meaningless."

"Some people are afraid of China, but the people in general are not, and they don't feel any obligation toward China," he said.

The November crackdown was the biggest use of force against protesters in Myanmar since Thein Sein's reformist government took office in March 2011. The military junta that led Myanmar for the previous five decades frequently crushed political dissent.

The use of incendiary devices by the police in the middle of the night to break up the 11-day occupation of mine property had outraged many people, especially because most of the burned were Buddhist monks.

The authorities had said they used water cannon, tear gas and smoke grenades to break up the protest.

A separate, independent report released last month by a Myanmar lawyers network and an international human rights group said police dispersed the protesters by using white phosphorous, an incendiary agent generally used in war to create smokescreens.

The report released Monday acknowledged that smoke bombs containing phosphorous were used. It said the smoke bombs do not generally create a flame but the phosphorus in them can sometimes burn flammable materials within an 8-meter (8-yard) radius.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday the U.S. opposes the use of phosphorus to control crowds, and it has urged the government to ensure that its security forces exercise maximum restraint and protect the freedom of assembly in accordance with international standards.

Asked about how the incident reflects on the country's reforms, Nuland told reporters: "It's not secret that this is a work in progress in Burma." She said the U.S. would continue a "rigorous" dialogue on human rights with Myanmar, including on police conduct.

Senior police told the commission that they used the same smoke bombs during monk-led protests in 2007 — the demonstrations known as the Saffron Revolution — and they didn't cause any burns then. The commission faulted the police force for failing to understand how the smoke bombs worked and recommended that police receive riot-control training.

Aung Thein, who helped prepare the earlier independent report, said that police should have known the bombs could cause fires. "There is no excuse for ignorance," he said.


Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.