Buddhist monks across Myanmar peacefully demonstrated Wednesday to demand a formal apology from the government for its recent crackdown on protesters at a copper mine that injured more than 100 of their monastic colleagues.
Hundreds of monks in Yangon and Mandalay, the country's two biggest cities, along with Monywa, the town closest to the mine in northwestern Myanmar, and at least six other towns marched in protest Wednesday as security forces stood by without interfering.
The monks said they are not satisfied with the apologies made by the government so far. Police used water cannons, tear gas and smoke bombs on Nov. 29 to break up an 11-day occupation of the Letpadaung mine project, a joint venture between a military-controlled holding company and a Chinese mining company. Protesters want the project halted, saying it is causing environmental, social and health problems.
Nearly 400 monks accompanied by hundreds of lay people marched in a human chain from the east gate of Yangon's famous Shwedagon pagoda to downtown City Hall, the route that thousands of monks had taken in 2007, when they staged a peaceful march against people's economic hardships that was brutally suppressed by the then-military regime.
"We organized this peaceful protest as the government has not yet apologized for the violent crackdown on the monks," said a 46-year old monk known as "Payit," who was detained after the 2007 protest but freed this past January.
Religious Affairs Minister Thura Myint Maung last Friday apologized for the violence to 29 senior monks at a ceremony in Yangon and said the government felt "extreme sorrow that monks and other people were wounded in the copper mine incident," which he said was mishandled by local authorities in Monywa.
"We are not satisfied with the apology because the senior monks do not represent the majority of monks," said Payit. "The government must apologize to the injured monks or respected and revered abbots from the monasteries in the district where many of the injured monks were from."
Nearly 100 people, mostly Buddhist monks, were injured during the crackdown, mostly by burns that protesters said were caused by incendiary devices hurled by police.
The crackdown was reminiscent of those the country faced under military rule, which formally ended when an elected government took power last year. It stirred particular anger because of the violence against monks, who are held in high regard in this reverent Buddhist country.
The heavy-handed action indicated the government is still unsure where to draw the line on public protests, even though Thein Sein's government has been hailed for releasing hundreds of political prisoners and for implementing laws allowing public demonstrations and labor strikes.
Many prominent figures, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, had urged authorities to apologize, and Suu Kyi now heads a commission to investigate the violent dispersal of peaceful protesters at the copper mine and advise whether the project should continue.
"Aung San Suu Kyi always sided for the truth and stands for the people. I hope she will continue to do so in connection with the copper mine investigation," Payit said. He said the monks' organization will continue to mobilize similar protests all over the country if its demands for an apology are not met.