December 2012


Doctrine divides, Action unites

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Violent Crackdown against Buddhist Monks,
New Regime with an Old Method

Burma Partnership

Burmese people in Japan express their feelings about the
 Letpadaung copper mine crackdown at the Burmese
 embassy in Tokyo on Nov. 30.
(Photo from

President Thein Sein’s government has revealed its true colors with the surprisingly reckless and bloody crackdown on Nov. 29 on peaceful protesters in Monywa in Sagaing Region. The crackdown on the protest camps came at 3a.m. without any chance for the protesters to withdraw. It was an ambush and an old tactic that characterizes the old military regime that the world has been trying to believe has reformed.

The Letpadaung copper project near Monywa—the largest copper mine in Burma—is a joint venture between the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. and Wan Bao, a unit of the weapons manufacturer China North Industries Corp. The project has been facing growing objections since August by the local communities in the Letpadaung area which say the project has confiscated as many as 7,800 acres of land, forcing them out of their villages and ruining the environment.

Riot police aggressively dispersed protesters using water cannons, tear gas and, according to protesters, incendiary devices that set the camps on flames leaving at least 50 people injured by the fire. Many of those who were severely wounded were Buddhist monks.

Many leaders and community members were shocked by the police’s reaction to the protest. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi during her visit to Monywa said the violent crackdown was “absolutely unnecessary” and demanded the authorities’ apology. Thaw Zin, one of the protesters in Monywa, said, “When the raid started, we didn’t believe that [the police] would use that kind of violence as we are no longer under military dictatorship. We were shocked!”

The violent crackdown has triggered outrage and anger among people. It has led to other solidarity protests in Burma, in neighboring Thailand as well as in Japan and India. Several hundred Buddhist monks launched separate protests in Mandalay, Rangoon, Magwe and Bangkok on Nov. 30 condemning the crackdown and endorsing the calls of the Monywa protesters. These protesters have also become the target of local authorities. Police on Dec. 2 arrested at least two people who participated in the Rangoon demonstrations, following on the heels of a demonstration on Nov. 26, which saw the arrest of six people who are now locked up in the notorious Insein Prison. Fifty-five civil society and community-based organizations from Burma and the region condemned the police’s violence against protesters and called for the suspension of the project, adequate impact assessments and the release of all the protesters who have been arrested thus far.

Thein Sein’s office issued a statement on the day of the crackdown in Monywa declaring that it was according to “democratic practices” and to maintain the “rule of law.” The statement was withdrawn in a few hours, however.

Now, amid widespread condemnation, Thein Sein has launched an investigation, making Daw Aung San Suu Kyi chair of the 30-member commission. The commission includes three National League for Democracy (NLD) members of Parliament (MPs), four Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) MPs, two other political party leaders, two members of the 88 Generation Students Group, eight government officials, one lieutenant colonel, two National Human Rights Commission members, one writer, two members of the Myanmar Environmental Institute, one member of the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd., one member of the Myanmar Peace Center and two villagers from Sagaing Region.

The commission’s tasks will include assessment of environmental and social impacts, reasons for objections by the local people, analysis of the police crackdown and recommendations on whether the project should be continued. Given that the commission has only 30 days to complete its report, it is clear that this is little more than an attempt to temporarily calm the angry public. On Nov. 30, members of the 88 Generation Students Group traveled to Monywa and met with the injured protesters and people from the local community. They have since stated that they will not take part in the commission.

“They all are the same—generals in suits,” said NLD’s prominent leader U Win Tin, who questions the genuineness of the ongoing reform process.

“The government’s response to the Letpadaung crackdown will be crucial for determining whether military-invested projects still operate above the law in Burma,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.

Indeed, the people’s demand for the closure of the Letpadaung copper project is more than an isolated case. The people are challenging how committed the government is to genuine reform.

Since Thein Sein’s government took office, all of the people’s movements, including those related to the Myitsone Dam project, the ongoing war in Kachin State and the current Letpadaung copper project, are more than opposition to a specific issue. The people are not satisfied with the flawed reform process to date and the superficial freedoms given to them.

One should ask Thein Sein why he immediately suspended the Myitsone Dam project but used such violent means to crack down on the Letpadaung copper mine project. It is time for Thein Sein and the generals to be serious about reform. Cracking down on peaceful protesters and arresting them has never been a solution, and it has proven again that it will never be. The government must address the larger issues at stake: unjust laws that continue to restrict freedom of assembly, association and expression; lack of equality of all people in the country; and business contracts signed under the previous military regime that are harmful to local communities.

* Burma Partnership is a network of organizations throughout the Asia-Pacific region that advocate and work toward realizing a movement for democracy and human rights in Burma. Based in Thailand, it acts as a link between groups inside the country and solidarity organizations around the world.