By Soe Zeya Tun
MONYWA, Myanmar, Dec 1 (Reuters) - Myanmar’s president asked opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Saturday to head an investigation into the planned expansion of a copper mine that has led to evictions and protests that were forcibly put down by riot police this week.
Activists said at least 50 people were injured on Thursday, including more than 20 Buddhist monks, after riot police raided camps set up round the Monywa mine in the north west Sagaing region by villagers protesting the evictions.
Riot police used teargas, water cannon and, according to activists, incendiary devices local media described as “phosphorous bombs”. Many of the injured suffered serious burns.
As monks protested on Saturday in Myanmar’s biggest cities, President Thein Sein responded quickly to public outrage.
A statement on the website of the president’s office said he had set up a commission led by Suu Kyi with a broad remit to look into whether the expansion of the mine should go ahead and into measures taken to control the protests.
The committee will encompass a broad cross-section of interests, including three local villagers and an official from the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd, a partner in the copper mine project alongside a unit of China North Industries Corp, a Chinese weapons manufacturer.
It should report by the end of December, the statement said.
Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi went to the area on Thursday to speak to villagers about their grievances and called for an inquiry, a demand echoed by U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, had called for a speedy official investigation.
“A hospital ward full of horribly burned Buddhist monks and other protesters deserve to know who attacked them while they were sleeping and what the government is going to do about it,” he said in a statement on Saturday.
“The crackdown ... is a fundamental test case for the government’s commitment to peaceful assembly and willingness to demand accountability for abuses.”
Anger has been growing at the heavy-handed police intervention at the mine, reminiscent of the way dissent was stifled under the junta that ruled Myanmar for half a century until it stepped aside, allowing Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian, reformist government to take office in March 2011.
Local residents say the $1 billion mine expansion entails the unlawful confiscation of more than 7,800 acres (3,160 hectares) of land. They told Reuters in September that four of 26 villages at the project site had been displaced, along with monasteries and schools.
Around 40 monks accompanied by about 60 other people held a peaceful march on Saturday around the Sule Pagoda in the commercial capital, Yangon, a focal point for monk-led protests in 2007 that were brutally put down by the junta. At least 100 monks demonstrated in the second city, Mandalay.
Suu Kyi, who led the fight for democracy under the junta and is now a member of parliament, told a news conference on Friday she had asked the authorities to release any monks who had been detained but had been told no arrests had been made.
“I think the people have the right to know why such violent measures were taken,” she told reporters. “I think it is needed to apologise to the monks.”
Local police in Monywa apologised on Saturday for injuries to the monks without explaining what had caused their burns.
“Since we ourselves are Buddhists, we have no intention at all to do anything that will hurt the region and the monks. We would like to ask for your kindness and request you in the most humble manners to forgive us for what we did,” Sagaing Region Police Colonel San Yuu said at a meeting.
Rallies have held at the Monywa copper mine, Myanmar’s biggest, for more than three months and are seen as a test both of the new regime’s willingness to allow peaceful protest and its attitude to land grabs.
State television said just before the crackdown that all work had been halted since Nov. 18 as a result of the protests.