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Opposition leader Aung San 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.
Riot police used water cannons, tear gas and smoke bombs to break up the 11-day occupation of the Letpadaung copper mine, wounding dozens of villagers and Buddhist monks early Thursday. The move risks becoming a public relations and political fiasco for Thein Sein's government, which has touted Myanmar's transition to democracy after almost five decades of repressive military rule.
In a visit scheduled before the crackdown, Suu Kyi met Thursday with company officials and protesters and was scheduled to meet with local officials and others Friday.
The mine is jointly operated by a Chinese company and a holding company controlled by Myanmar's military, and activists say as the project expands, villagers have been forced from their land with little compensation.
Through state television, the government initially acknowledged using the riot-control measures but denied using excessive force against the protesters. In an unusual move, it later retracted the statement without explanation.
Protesters suffered serious burns after the crackdown near the town of Monywa. It was unclear if people were burned by the weapons themselves or because the weapons ignited fires in shelters at the protest camps.
"I didn't expect to be treated like this, as we were peacefully protesting," Aung Myint Htway, a peanut farmer whose face and body were covered with black patches of burned skin, said.
Another protester, Ottama Thara, said: "This kind of violence should not happen under a government that says it is committed to democratic reforms."
Still writhing from pain hours after the early morning crackdown, Aung Myint Htway said police fired water cannons first and then shot what he and others called flare guns.
"They fired black balls that exploded into fire sparks. They shot about six times. People ran away and they followed us," he said. "It's very hot."
Suu Kyi's visit to nearby Kan-Kone village had been scheduled before the crackdown. The Nobel Peace laureate, elected to parliament after spending most of the last two decades under house arrest, unexpectedly went to the mine to meet with its operators before making her speech.
"I already met one side. I met with mine operators. I want to meet with villagers and protesters," she said. "I want to negotiate hearing from both sides."
She asked the crowd to be patient. "I haven't made any decision yet. I want to meet with both sides and negotiate," she said in a speech that lasted less than 15 minutes. "Will you agree with my negotiating?" The crowd shouted its assent.
Some of Suu Kyi's comments suggested that she may not fully embrace the tactics of the protesters. "When dealing with people, I don't always follow what people like. I only tell the truth," she said. "I will work for the long-term benefit of the country."
After her speech she went to the hospital where many of the injured were being treated, and met with protest leaders at the hotel in Monywa where she is staying. A protest leader, Thwe Thwe Win, said afterward: "We will wait for Aung San Suu Kyi to negotiate with the companies. But we will not stop the protest until we achieve our demands, though I cannot tell you how we will proceed at this point."
Ohn Kyaing, a spokesman for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, said she told the mine's executives that force should not have been used. He said the executives said they did not direct the action, and that it had been the work of the state security forces. Ohn Kyaing said Suu Kyi on Friday would meet with officials in charge of the crackdown, as well as local villagers and their representatives.
Government officials have publicly stated that the protest risked scaring off foreign investment in Myanmar's long-neglected economy. Villagers affected by the mine claim they did not receive satisfactory compensation and demand a more comprehensive environmental impact assessment.
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.
The protesters' concerns about the mine do not yet appear to be widely shared by the broader public. But hurting monks — as admired for their social activism as they are revered for their spiritual beliefs — is sure to antagonize many.
Aung Myint Htway said he didn't care that police treated him badly but added, "I won't forgive them for what they did to our monks."
According to a nurse at a Monywa hospital, 27 monks and one other person were admitted with burns caused by some sort of projectile that released sparks or embers. Two monks with serious injuries were sent for treatment in Mandalay, Myanmar's second-biggest city, a 2½ hour drive away.
Other evicted protesters gathered at a Buddhist temple about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the mine's gates.
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 government's surprise suspension last year of a Chinese-backed hydroelectric project, in response to similar concerns about social and economic consequences, was seen as a significant indicator of its commitment to democratic reform. But China was unhappy about the decision, and Thein Sein's ministers have warned about offending Myanmar's big neighbor to the north and scaring off other foreign investors.
China's foreign ministry has defended the mining venture as mutually beneficial and said that environmental remediation and compensation to relocate affected residents all conformed to Myanmar law.