The Myanmar government's sudden and brutal crackdown on protesters Thursday at a copper mine in the Letpadaung Mountains in the northwest part of the country which injured dozens of people, including more than 20 Buddhist monks, is rightly drawing condemnation from around the world. As monks marched in Yangon and Mandalay yesterday and rights groups called for an official inquiry, it is not an overstatement to say that what happens next can be viewed as a test of the Myanmar government's commitment to basic mechanisms of democratic governance.
Among those condemning the government's harsh action _ in which incendiary devices were reportedly used that left many with severe burns _ was opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been scheduled to meet with the protesters later that day to hear their grievances. After learning of the crackdown Mrs Suu Kyi had strong words of criticism for the action and said the public deserved an explanation for it. However, she stopped short of demanding that the company abandon its plans or expansion, saying instead that a compromise should be reached and that the government must honour its commitments to other countries, which in this case means China. Chinese owned Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd entered into a joint venture with the Myanmar military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL), to operate the mine, originally a joint venture between a Canadian company and the Myanmar Ministry of Mines. After the Canadian company divested its interests several years ago the mine ''fell into the hands'' of UMEHL and Wanbao was brought in. Shortly after the expansion plans were announced, and, as reported by the The Myanmar Times ''more than 14,000 acres [5,666 hectares] were acquired and villages, monasteries and schools were forced to move''.
The protesters had been camped at the site to express their opposition to the mine expansion which, according to a statement released last week by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) before the crackdown, entails the ''partial or complete forcible eviction of some 26 villages from houses and farmland, and pollution and degradation of that land by unregulated heavy industries''. The AHRC statement was released in response to a government order that demonstrators abandon their protest sites or face criminal action. The government said that the termination of the protest was necessary and the mine should be allowed to operate ''as usual'' in order for a newly authorised independent government commission to evaluate the project and determine if the expansion should be allowed to go ahead.