MONYWA, Burma (AP) — Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi met with rare public scorn while trying to justify an official report endorsing continued operation of a copper mine in northwestern Burma opposed by many local residents.
Suu Kyi talked with protesters in Monywa township and with mine officials Wednesday about the report of a commission she led to investigate the Letpadaung mine’s operations and a police crackdown last November that badly injured scores of protesters.
The report, made public Tuesday, said honoring the mining contract with a Chinese joint venture outweighed villagers’ demands that mining operations be halted because of alleged social and environmental problems. It only mildly criticized police, despite the injuries caused to protesters, mostly Buddhist monks, by the use of incendiary smoke bombs.
More than 700 protesters shouted denunciations of the report as Suu Kyi’s motorcade passed between visits to four local villages.
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Raising their fists in the air, protesters yelled, “We don’t want the commission” and “To stop the Letpadaung copper project is our duty,” shouting louder as Suu Kyi’s car came closer.
Sandar, a protester from Alaltaw village, said the report neglected the troubles the mine caused local residents.
“We feel that Mother Suu doesn’t have sympathy for us. We are fighting for the truth,” she said, calling Suu Kyi by a term used by her supporters.
“We are not clear whether she made this decision because she is afraid of the military company or because she doesn’t love us. We want her to know that we are not protesting out of idleness,” she said. Burma Economic Holding Ltd., a military-controlled holding company, is the local joint venture party in the mine.
Suu Kyi’s endorsement of the commission’s findings could erode some of the deep and wide support she has enjoyed for more than two decades as she spearheaded the democratic opposition to the repressive former military government. A nominally civilian elected government took power in 2011, and Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party contested by-elections last year, giving her a seat in parliament.
As her party has agreed to play by parliamentary rules — in effect endorsing the army-backed government’s reform efforts — there is an opening for more hard-core anti-military activists to win over a share of disaffected voters who prefer a quicker pace of change than allowed under the army-dictated constitution. The next general election is in 2015.
Protesters say the mine, a joint venture with China’s Wan Bao mining company, causes environmental, social and health problems and should be shut down.
The report said the operation should not be halted but acknowledged that the mine lacked strong environmental protection measures and would not create more jobs for local people. It 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 Burma remain suspicious of the military and regard China as an aggressive and exploitative investor that helped support military rule.
The commission faulted the police force for failing to understand how the smoke bombs worked and recommended that police receive riot-control training, but failed to hold any official accountable.
Suu Kyi held question-and-answer sessions with villagers and met with executives from the mining company.
She told villagers that if they wanted to protest the report’s findings, they should demonstrate at her home, not at the mining company. Emphasizing the rule of law, she said any such protest must follow the law requiring prior permission, otherwise police would be summoned.
She said her commission considered three options for the mine: to continue, to stop or to continue with changes. The commission recommended the third way.
“If we stopped it completely, where would we get money to heal the current environmental destruction? The shutdown of the mine is not beneficial for locals. If we break the agreement made with another country, the countries of the world will suppose that Burma is financially unreliable,” Suu Kyi said.
Several villagers said they rejected Suu Kyi’s position. At a protest camp a short distance from the mining company’s offices, Nyein, 49, said demonstrators would fight until death to recover mountain land taken over for the mine. She was forced to relinquish her four-acre plot three years ago to make way for the project.
“What we want is to stop the project completely,” she said. “Our great forefathers could protect the mountains that sustained us even when we fell under the rule of the Japanese and the British. Why are they being totally lost when we are ruling our own land?”