MONYWA, Myanmar (AP) — 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."