MONYWA, Myanmar (Reuters) - Pyinyananda was chanting with dozens of fellow Buddhist monks when an object landed in the folds of his orange robes and blew up.
The canister contained tear gas, the police later said, but the explosion flayed so much skin from his arms and legs that he remains in hospital weeks later.
“The police gave no warning before they fired,” said Pyinyananda, 19, nursing his bandaged arms.
He was one of at least 67 monks and six other people injured on November 29, when riot police raided camps set up by villagers protesting against a $1 billion expansion of the Myanmar Wanbao copper mine in northern Myanmar.
The raids sparked nationwide outrage that dented the reformist credentials of President Thein Sein, a former general whose quasi-civilian government replaced a decades-old dictatorship in 2011. They also underscored how, after a year of often breathtaking change, the bad old Myanmar still looms over the new.
“Our leaders haven’t kicked their dictatorial habits,” said former monk Nyi Nyi Lwin, better known as Gambira, who was jailed for his role in 2007 pro-democracy protests. “We’re no longer an absolute dictatorship, but we’re not yet a genuine democracy.”
Few ordinary Burmese have felt the impact of reform, but most have high expectations and feel emboldened to speak out. The mine dispute suggests that while 2012 was Myanmar’s year of hope and change, 2013 has the potential to be a year of protests and crackdowns.
The copper mine sits at a crowded intersection of grievances and interests - local, national and international; political, economic and religious.
Myanmar Wanbao is a unit of China North Industries Corp, a Chinese weapons manufacturer. It operates the mine - the country’s largest - with the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL), a vast holding company belonging to the powerful Myanmar military.
Villagers say the expansion at Letpadaung, a set of low hills on the west bank of the Chindwin River, involves the unlawful confiscation of thousands of acres of their land. Monks say it has destroyed or damaged the holy sites of a famous Buddhist teacher who died in 1923.
Their months-long protest ended in a pre-dawn, military-style operation reminiscent of the suppression of monk-led protests in 2007. Back then, Thein Sein, a former general, was the loyal prime minister of retired dictator Than Shwe.
The November crackdown triggered a public-relations nightmare. A government headed by an ex-general and filled with former soldiers had used force to protect the business interests of the Myanmar military and of the giant neighbor that had armed and supported it during decades of Western sanctions: China.
Amid nationwide street protests by monks, Thein Sein cancelled a state visit to Australia and New Zealand to focus on damage control. Police and ministers apologized to the monks, and a commission was established to investigate local grievances about the mine. It is headed by Nobel Peace Prize-winning opposition leader Aug San Sul Kyi.
The crackdown came just 10 days after Myanmar basked in a visit from U.S. President Barack Obama. His November 19 appearance in the former pariah state lasted just six hours, but for many Burmese it heralded their re-entry into the world after decades of isolation.
Obama’s trip followed news that the U.S. military would invite Myanmar counterparts to observe war games in neighboring Thailand in January 2013. The invitation was a powerful symbolic gesture toward a Myanmar military that has yet to acknowledge its well-documented human rights abuses.
The mine crackdown now has some wondering if the U.S. rapprochement is too hasty. In a paper published December 12, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, said the Obama Administration’s policy “lacks sufficient protections against Burmese backsliding on reforms.” It urged Congress to re-impose major U.S. sanctions if Myanmar’s progress was insufficient.
Myanmar’s reforms have not stalled. But they have entered a complex and less headline-grabbing phase that could test the nerve of Thein Sein’s reformers and the patience of his long-suffering people.
This year the government has held a free and fair by-election, all but scrapped media censorship, reformed Myanmar’s antiquated currency, and set in motion a crowded legislative agenda to tackle rural poverty and encourage foreign investment.
But there have been setbacks. A year that began with the release of hundreds of political prisoners ended with activists alleging that the government is arresting dissidents almost as fast as it is freeing them. In the days after their crackdown at the mine, police detained at least eight activists in Yangon.
The government still has the trust of the people, said Aung Min, minister of the president’s office and one of Thein Sein’s top reformers. “It was not a crackdown. It was crowd control,” he said, adding that the government has already apologized for the injuries.
The year also started with a slew of ceasefires with ethnic insurgent armies. Several are now looking shaky, and a 20-month conflict in Kachin State between government troops and Kachin rebels is escalating.
And a relationship once considered essential to the reform process is showing signs of strain. Suu Kyi speaks privately with increasing bitterness of Thein Sein, say diplomats and other visitors to her semi-fortified lakeside home in Yangon. Her spokesman, Ohn Kyaing, denied there is any rift.
The mine protest also capped a year in which Myanmar’s monks returned as a major political force - for good and for bad. Monks have been famed for years for their pro-democracy stance. This year, some of them were shown to have an anti-Muslim stance as well.
Monks have held street rallies to oppose the mostly stateless Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine State in western Myanmar. There, two eruptions of sectarian violence this year with Rakhine Buddhists left hundreds dead and tens of thousands homeless.
In an October outbreak, monks openly incited Rakhine mobs to attack Muslims. The ethnic cleansing that followed has left Muslims elsewhere in Myanmar fearing for their own safety.
The setbacks should serve as a reality check for foreign investors eyeing business opportunities in one of Asia’s last frontier economies, some Myanmar watchers say. The reform process will be lengthy and “very hostage to events,” said Sean Turnell, an expert on the Myanmar economy at Macquarie University in Australia. “The mine illustrates the sort of event that could send things off the rails.”
You could fit Yankee Stadium into the Myanmar Wanbao copper mine. Twice.
Giant trucks look like toys as they ascend on switchback curves from its depths. The hole is surrounded by towering heaps of copper ore which, with every new truckload, inch their way towards surrounding villages.
The company’s compound in Letpadaung is a neat grid of bungalows surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire and security cameras. Outside the gate is a singed and threadbare lawn where the main protest camp once stood. Inside, riot police march back and forth, shouting and banging riot shields with their truncheons.
“Regular training,” said Police Lieutenant Colonel Thura Thwin Ko Ko, 49, one of commanders on duty the night of the crackdown. He is a former army major decorated for bravery during bloody jungle campaigns against rebels in Karen State. (“Thura” is a military honorific meaning “brave.”)
Thwin Ko Ko said police had been patient with the demonstrators, who had no legal permission to protest. “They are not our enemies,” he said. “They are our brothers and sisters. They are not educated and don’t understand the law.”
But he said this patience wore thin as people from other areas joined the protest, along with “outside groups” whom Thwin Ko Ko didn’t identify. “Our country cannot stand it forever,” he said. “So we had to take action.”
On the evening before the crackdown, “we asked them to go back to their homes and monasteries at least 15 times,” he said. “Nobody wanted to make violent action.” More warnings were made at 3 a.m. on November 29, before police used water cannon and threw tear-gas canisters.
The order to clear the protest sites, he said, came from “our superiors” in the Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees the police, and from the office of the prime minister of Sagaing state, of which Monywa is the capital.
Police were told not to fire rubber bullets or even to use truncheons, said Thwin Ko Ko. “We only used water cannon and tear gas.” This action was “in accordance with the law.” The president’s office issued a statement on the day of the crackdown which used similar language.
The burn injuries of dozens of monks still recuperating at Mandalay General Hospital tell a different story.
According to Western diplomats in Yangon, two types of munitions were found at the protest site. One was a canister bearing the letters “CS” - an abbreviation for the active chemical in tear-gas. The other was a smaller, bullet-like munition with no markings.
The munitions were standard-issue police weapons for dispersing crowds, said Twin Ko Ko. If the police had known what kind of impact the munitions would have, they would never have deployed them, he said. “We were really surprised what kind of smoke bomb it is.”
Why did tear-gas canisters explode like incendiary grenades? That’s one mystery opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s commission investigating the incident hopes to solve by the end of December. “When we can find enough evidence, then we will announce who is guilty and why,” she said at a December 6 news conference.
At her request, four children with mental disabilities aged from one to 16 years were sent to Yangon Children’s Hospital, after locals claimed they had been poisoned by emissions from a sulphuric acid factory in the area that’s owned by UMEHL.
Doctors found “no symptoms of exposing to acid,” said a government news release printed on the front page of the state-run New Light of Myanmar on December 14.
The state-run media also has been running photos of Thein Sein making offerings at Buddhist temples. With the monk-led Saffron Revolution of 2007 so recent a memory, the president seems at pains to persuade his people that the mine crackdown was an aberration.
The monkhood has about 400,000 members and remains a powerful force in Myanmar. CDs with sermons by celebrated monks take pride of place on street stalls that also sell pirated Hollywood movies.
A key monk in the mine protest was Wirathu (his holy name), a short, shaven-headed abbot at New Massoyein in Mandalay, a vast monastic complex housing almost 3,000 monks.
Wirathu, 44, lives in a monastery whose walls are decorated with larger-than-life photos of himself. In an interview, he said he dispatched 170 monks to Monywa - not to demonstrate, he stressed, but to safeguard the protesters. The police crackdown enraged him, he said.
“Honestly, I felt I wanted to fight weapons with weapons,” he said.
Wirathu is also one of the most prominent articulators of Burmese resentment against the country’s Muslims, whom he refers to by the pejorative “kalar.”
He blames Muslim Rohingyas for recent sectarian violence in Rakhine State, despite evidence, first documented by Reuters, of ethnic cleansing by Buddhist Rakhines in October. He alleged that Muslims deliberately razed their own houses to win a place at refugee camps run by aid agencies. Wirathu said his militancy is vital to counter aggressive expansion by Muslims, who he says marry and forcibly convert Buddhist women.
“I am a Burmese bin Laden,” he grinned.
Valerie Amos, the United Nations humanitarian chief, visited the refugee camps in December and described conditions as among the worst she had ever seen. Thousands of Rohingya men, women and children are cramming onto ramshackle fishing boats and setting sail for other Southeast Asian countries.
Former political prisoner and monk Gambira said monks are less anti-Muslim than Wirathu’s views suggest. In a nation where a third of all people live below the poverty line, the monkhood will inevitably reflect the beliefs of an ill-educated populace, he said. Gambira also noted that Buddhist monks in Yangon recently held an interfaith meeting with Muslim, Christian and Hindu religious figures.
The copper mine is not the first Chinese project to become the target of popular anger. Thein Sein stunned Beijing after suspending the $3.6 billion Chinese-built Myitsone dam in Sep. 2011 after fierce public opposition to its construction.
In the aftermath of the mine crackdown, the fear now is that simmering resentment could spark protests over Myanmar’s largest project, also Chinese-built: a twin oil and gas pipeline being built across the country into China’s energy-hungry Yunnan province.
In most of Myanmar, Chinese populations are long-established and well-integrated. Not so in Mandalay and the north, where the copper mine lies. Here, hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrants have settled in the past 20 years, often with citizenship papers obtained illegally.
Their access to credit and business networks in China gives them an advantage over existing native-run businesses, which has raised tensions with locals, reported the Brussels-based think tank Crisis Group in November. “There is clearly a risk of intercommunal violence, something that the Chinese government has long been concerned about,” it said.
Suu Kyi’s investigation of the mine crackdown will likely be highly critical of the Myanmar police. But it’s unclear how far she will risk antagonizing either of the mine partners, Myanmar Wanbao (meaning China) or the military-run UMEHL. Both Beijing and the military are powerful supporters of Thein Sein.
“There will never be an answer with which everyone will be satisfied,” she said at a December 6 press conference in Yangon. “But our commission’s only mission is to reveal the truth.”
Still, Suu Kyi feels that Thein Sein reneged on promises to release all political prisoners, said activists who have spoken with her recently. Fifty-one dissidents were released on November 19, just as Obama arrived on the first visit to Myanmar by a serving U.S. president. But at least 200 remain behind bars, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Burmese human-rights group.
Obama spoke at Yangon University of “a future where a single prisoner of conscience is one too many.” Listening from the front row was the former monk Gambira, a lantern-jawed 33-year-old with thick-rimmed glasses.
He had been sentenced to 68 years in prison for his leading role in the 2007 Saffron Revolution protests by monks. He was freed in January 2012 with many other prominent political prisoners. He says he suffers from poor mental health due to torture and abuse while in custody.
On December 1, less than two weeks after Obama’s speech, Gambira was arrested for an act of civil disobedience. Soon after his January release, Gambira broke the padlocks on monasteries shut down by the former junta, so that monks could occupy them again.
He was charged with trespassing and vandalism, then released on bail after spending 10 days in the notorious Insein Jail.
Gambira believes he was arrested to prevent him from organizing anti-mine protests. He admits to meeting with “angry” Mandalay monks just after the crackdown. “The monks won’t budge until the whole (mining) project is cancelled,” he said.
The opponents of the copper mine seem unfazed by the government’s tactics. As of two weeks ago, half a dozen monks and about 60 lay people, mostly from surrounding villages, had set up a new protest encampment east of the mine’s Letpadaung expansion.
“Every crackdown creates a new generation of activists,” Gambira said.
Reporting by Andrew Marshall; Editing by Michael Williams and Bill Tarrant