Suu Kyi decries crackdown that injured protesters

Associated Press
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi reaches for supporters as she leaves after a public meeting close to Letpadaung mine in Monywa, northwestern Myanmar, Friday, Nov. 30, 2012. Suu Kyi is urging a negotiated resolution to protests over a military-backed copper mine in northwestern Myanmar after the government's biggest crackdown on demonstrators since reformist President Thein Sein took office last year. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
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MONYWA, Myanmar (AP) — Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi publicly criticized the forcible crackdown on protesters at a mine in northwestern Myanmar and said Friday that the public needed an explanation of the violence that injured dozens, including Buddhist monks.

At the same time, she indicated in her speech to villagers that the protesters may have to accept a compromise for the sake of national honor.

Now serving in parliament after years as a political prisoner of the long-ruling junta, Suu Kyi received a hero's welcome in the town of Monywa, where residents were rattled by the government's biggest crackdown on demonstrations since reformist President Thein Sein took office last year.

She was scheduled to visit the area before the crackdown to hear the protesters' grievances and said she would try to negotiate or mediate in the conflict over the mine, which protesters say is causing environmental and social problems.

Speaking to a crowd of more than 10,000, Suu Kyi made the point she did not want confrontation but said people had the right to ask why the authorities cracked down so harshly on the non-violent protesters.

"I want to ask, 'What was their purpose of doing this?' Frankly, there's no need to act like this," she said, and people in the crowd shouted back: "Right!"

"I'm not saying this to agitate people," she continued. "I never persuade people by agitating. I explain to people so that they can decide by thinking."

Activists and Buddhist monks who contend the Letpadaung copper mine is causing environmental and social problems had occupied the mine for 11 days before police used water cannons, tear gas and smoke bombs to break up the protest early Thursday.

Weapons that protesters described as flare guns caused severe burns to protesters and set shelters ablaze. A nurse at a Monywa hospital said 27 monks and one other person were admitted there to be treated for burns.

Suu Kyi visited with injured protesters Thursday, as well as meeting with mining company officials and local activists. She was to meet security officials Friday.

She has taken a soft line on the conflict over the project, noting that many people asked her to help stop the project at once, but saying she did not know details of the original contract and a parliamentary investigating committee had yet to do its work.

She went on to suggest that Myanmar should honor the contracts establishing the project, especially since they involved a neighboring country. The mine is a joint venture between a military-controlled holding company and a Chinese mining company.

She said the deals were done under the previous military regime without taking into account the wishes of the people, and "We are suffering as a result of these," but that Myanmar should honor its commitments nonetheless.

She said that even in some cases where the people's interest was not taken into account, the agreement should be followed "so that the country's image will not be hurt."

"You can't decide that you can't keep the promise that you didn't give," she said.

The government's position is similar, with senior officials publicly stating that that the protesters' demands to stop operating the mine risked scaring off foreign investment in Myanmar's long-neglected economy.

Although she is head of the parliamentary opposition, Suu Kyi has usually counseled moderation in problematic issues.

The protest is the latest major example of increased activism by citizens since the elected government took over last year. Street demonstrations have been legalized, and are generally tolerated, though detentions have occurred in sensitive cases.

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.

However, the military's position in Myanmar's government remains strong, and some critics fear that democratic gains could be temporary.

The mine is a joint venture between China's Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd. and the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd., and most people here remain suspicious of the military and see China as an aggressive and exploitive investor that helped support its rule.

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