* Protests over land confiscation; truckloads of police go
* Nobel laureate Suu Kyi to speak to protesters
* China blames "third parties, some Westerners"
(Adds Suu Kyi offering to mediate)
By Aung Hla Tun
YANGON, Nov 29 Riot police fired water cannon
and tear gas on Thursday to break up a three-month protest
against a vast copper mining project run by the powerful Myanmar
military and its partner, a subsidiary of a Chinese arms
Activists said at least 50 people had been injured and 23
were in hospital, some suffering burns after incendiary devices
were hurled into their camps by police. Media described the
devices as "phosphorous bombs".
After decades of oppression, the Monywa mine has become a
test of Myanmar's reforms as protesters explore new-found
freedoms, including a relaxation of laws on protests since July.
It also illustrates growing resentment towards Chinese companies
that have expanded across the country in recent years.
Witnesses said truckloads of police arrived at six camps
near the mine in the Sagaing region in Myanmar's northwest,
where thousands have demonstrated against a $1 billion expansion
of the project and what they call the unlawful confiscation of
more than 7,800 acres (3,160 hectares) of land.
Security forces began using water cannon and other weapons
from about 3 a.m, Shin Oattama, a Buddhist monk who had helped
the villagers, told Reuters by telephone. "They shot some sort
of canisters that caused fire at the camp," he said.
Myo Thant, a political activist, said 22 monks were wounded
in a crackdown in which some officers fired incendiary devices
against protesters. "The stuff from these canisters got caught
on the clothes and bodies of the victims. When they shook their
robes to remove this stuff, fire started."
But Zaw Htay, a spokesman for President Thein Sein, said
police had used only water cannon, tear gas and smoke bombs to
disperse the protesters. "No chemical weapons were used by the
police to do their duty," he said.
Land disputes are a growing problem in Myanmar. Protests
were suppressed under a military junta in place until last year
but have become more common as Thein Sein opens up the country,
also known as Burma, and pushes through reforms including the
right to strike.
"This is an example of the skin-deep nature of Burma's
reforms," said Mark Farmaner of London-based advocacy group
Burma Campaign UK. "The new right-to-protest law was hailed as a
major reform but it is clear there is still no right to protest
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi offered to
mediate between the two sides.
Addressing a crowd of about 10,000 people near the mine, she
said she had met company officials. "I'd like to meet with the
respective villagers and those who are opposing this project and
mediate between the two sides," she said. "I would like to ask
the people to cooperate with patience."
The copper mine, Myanmar's biggest, is run by a unit of
China North Industries Corp, a prominent weapons manufacturer,
under a deal signed in June 2010 after Canada's Ivanhoe Mines
Ltd pulled out in 2007.
It is backed by the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic
Holdings Ltd, which operated extensively under the military
regime that ruled for almost half a century until 2011.
The Global Times, an influential tabloid published by
China's Communist Party mouthpiece, the People's Daily, said in
an editorial on Thursday it would be a "lose-lose situation for
China and Myanmar if the project is halted".
"Only third parties, including some Western forces, will be
glad to see this result," it said, blaming "some Westerners" and
non-government organisations for instigating the protests.
"We must not give up on the project. Even if it is
eventually stopped, Chinese companies should receive
compensation according to the contract and international
practice," it said.
As the number of land disputes increase, villagers appear
emboldened by reforms under Thein Sein, who took office in March
2011, and are pushing back.
Authorities warned the protesters late on Tuesday to clear
the site by midnight that day so that a parliamentary commission
could carry out an investigation, but the camps remained.
State television said all project work had been halted since
Nov. 18 because of the protests.
Protests stretching back at least three months have involved
thousands of villagers and supporters. They told Reuters in
September that four of 26 villages at the project site had
already been displaced, along with monasteries and schools.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Andrew
R.C. Marshall in Bangkok; Writing by Alan Raybould and Jason
Szep; Editing by Paul Tait and Robert Birsel)