In December last year, as the extent of the casualty toll from the crackdown on copper mine protestors in Burma became apparent, Human Rights Watch released a damming statement calling for full accountability of the perpetrators of the violence. “The government’s response to the Letpadaung crackdown will be crucial for determining whether military-invested projects still operate above the law in Burma,” HRW’s Phil Robertson said.
In the early hours of the morning of 29 November, riot police fired incendiary devices into a tightly packed protest camp in Monywa in Sagaing Division. According to subsequent testimonies from victims, who numbered close to one hundred, plumes of fire shot up and torched tents and the skins of those close by. It was the most aggressive response to popular dissent since the September 2007 crackdown, and wholly contradicted government moves to gradually open up the space for free protest in Burma.
In the following weeks a government-led commission chaired by Aung San Suu Kyi was set up to investigate the crackdown. On paper it appeared the most progressive of several rights-based initiatives by the government – the National Human Rights Commission, for instance, is deemed ineffective given the domination of pro-military figures, while the team tasked with probing the Arakan state violence includes outwardly racist and/or ambivalent characters. The hopes for a robust investigation into the Letpadaung crackdown were therefore high.
That all came crashing to the ground this week with the release of its report, which had been delayed several times. Some key conclusions have been drawn that beg serious questions of the mindset of the team behind it.
The first is the claim that police fired the devices, said to be smoke bombs, “without knowing what their effect would be”. Two issues arise from this: the first is the acknowledgement by the government that its security forces are woefully inept at handling highly dangerous equipment. Given the low quality of training and resources available, this isn’t really surprising, yet it appears to have been used to excuse the disproportionate reaction to the protest. Moreover, the report made no mention of action to be taken on the perpetrators, and referred to the injuries as “unnecessary”. Considering the brutality of the response, the language used is particularly soft.
The second is that, according to the report, riot police fired 55 devices into the camp. It’s not clear how many caught fire, but eyewitnesses spoke in plurals when they described the flames shooting up into the sky: “They fired 10 rounds; five at a time,” one told the Democratic Voice of Burma. “And the sparks that landed on people’s clothing couldn’t be shaken off; they burst into flames when they attempted to do so.”
The fact that it was night time would have made it easier to see that these smoke bombs had become more than just smoke bombs. If the police want to claim that they intended no harm, then why did they not stop after the first sign that things had gone wrong? Yet more and more were fired into the camp. We can’t say whether or not the riot police had malicious intentions, but the results don’t look good.
The feeling across the board is one of anger at the report’s findings, particularly its conclusion that the mine operation should continue, despite acknowledging the environmental damage and that it brought only “slight” benefits to Burma. The mine however is particularly sensitive for the government, given heavy investment from powerful military figures and China (more on that here). In this instance at least, HRW’s statement appears to have been answered – military-invested projects remain above the law, as do security forces tasked with ‘protecting’ them.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who has become the target of the widespread anger over the report, will travel to the site today. Protestors said previously that they would continue their actions if the mine were to continue (as the report recommends). We don’t know what role she had in the final conclusions of the report, or whether her own recommendations were overruled, but in the end her name is attached to it, and her position in the commission is a senior one. For the first time in her life, Suu Kyi risks becoming the target of protests from Burmese when she travels to Letpadaung.