Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Friday said authorities must apologize for a violent crackdown on monks and other foes of a mine in northwest Myanmar, but she also stuck to the government's view that the country must follow through on its commitment to build the project.
Speaking Friday morning to a crowd of more than 10,000 in the northwestern town of Monywa, the Nobel Peace laureate said people had the right to ask why authorities cracked down so harshly on the nonviolent protesters who had occupied the nearby Letpadaung copper mine for 11 days. It was the government's biggest crackdown on demonstrations since reformist President Thein Sein took office last year.
The United States also voiced concern Friday over the "forcible eviction" of peaceful protesters. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. has been urging the government to ensure security forces exercise maximum restraint and protect the right of free assembly.
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.
"I want to ask, 'What was their purpose of doing this?' Frankly, there's no need to act like this," Suu Kyi said. 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."
In remarks to reporters Friday, Suu Kyi said the authorities "need to apologize to the monks."
Yet she has taken a soft line on the broader conflict over the expanding mine, which protesters say is damaging the environment and forcing villagers to move without adequate compensation.
She noted that many people asked her to help stop the project at once, but said 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 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."
Senior government officials have said the protesters' demands to stop operating the mine risk scaring off foreign investment in Myanmar's long-neglected economy.
Now serving in parliament after years as a political prisoner of the long-ruling junta, Suu Kyi received a hero's welcome in Monywa. Her visit had been scheduled before the crackdown, and she has said she will try to negotiate a solution to the conflict over the mine.
On Thursday she met mining company officials, activists and injured protesters, and she met security officials Friday.
The crackdown is a big blot on the government's efforts to woo popular support, especially because many of the targets were monks, who are admired for their social activism as much as they are revered for their spiritual beliefs in deeply religious Myanmar.
The previous military government infamously cracked down violently on monks who were leading the 2007 pro-democracy protests that came to be known as the "Saffron Revolution," from the color of their robes.
Monks in Myanmar's two biggest cities, Yangon and Mandalay, staged small nonviolent protests Friday.
The Upper Myanmar Monks organization in Mandalay issued a statement calling on the government to formally apologize for the action within five days, to provide sufficient health care for those who were injured and to release seven monks they say were detained.
U Withuta, a prominent activist monk who is a member of the group, said more than 40 monks were hurt, some seriously and at risk of losing their eyesight. He said he was lightly burned on the thigh.
"We wanted to forget what happened in 2007 and proceed forward, but what happened yesterday was like opening an old wound," Withuta said. He said it was premature to say what the monks would do if their demands were not met.
Citizen activism has increased 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.
The Letpadaung mine is a joint venture between China's Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd. and the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. Many in Myanmar remain suspicious of the military and see China as an aggressive and exploitive investor that helped support its rule.
In Yangon, more than 30 monks who staged a peaceful protest at downtown Sule pagoda, were joined by nearly 100 people who chanted prayers in front of the office of the army's holding company.
"May all be free from harm, may all be peaceful and may the Letpadaung mountains be green," they chanted in the Friday dusk.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.