MONYWA, Myanmar (AP) — 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.