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Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Friday demanded an apology for monks hurt in a violent police crackdown at a Chinese copper mine protest, after she held talks with the two sides.
The Nobel laureate sought to mediate an end to the standoff, which saw scores of villagers and monks injured in the toughest clampdown on demonstrators since a new reform-minded government took power last year.
Images of monks lying in hospital beds with severe burns have stoked public anger over the rough treatment, which had echoes of violent crackdowns that were the hallmark of decades of junta rule.
“We know that police officials are responsible for what happened but we need to know why they did it,” Suu Kyi told reporters during a visit to the area. “I think the monks need an apology.”
In an attempt to cool anti-Chinese sentiment, however, the veteran dissident struck a conciliatory tone towards Beijing and declined to back calls for an immediate halt to work on the Latpaduang Copper Mine in Monywa township, northern Burma.
“We have never regarded the People’s Republic of China as our benefactor. But it is our neighbouring country so we want to be a friend,” she added.
In an attempt to find a solution to the dispute, Suu Kyi held separate meetings with officials from the mine operator followed by police and local residents opposed to the project.
The pro-democracy leader, who is now a lawmaker, said afterwards that she hoped a parliamentary commission that was recently approved by MPs would be set up “as soon as possible” and would include local villagers.
Opponents are calling for work at the mine – a joint venture between Chinese firm Wanbao and military-owned Myanmar Economic Holdings – to be suspended to allow environmental and social impact studies.
But Suu Kyi backed the government’s argument that the impact of the mine cannot be properly assessed if there is no work under way.
“We can only assess the project if it is not stopped,” she said. “We need to access whether the implementation of the project is really harmful for the region,” she said.
Protesters allege mass evictions have taken place to make way for the mine while China insists that the contentious points had already been resolved.
“Issues such as relocation, compensation, environmental protection and profit sharing… were jointly settled through negotiations by the two sides and meet Myanmar [Burma]’s laws and regulations,” the Chinese embassy in Rangoon said in a statement.
Activists said about 100 people were injured in the crackdown.
Several monks were in a “critical condition”, according to pro-democracy campaigner Myo Thant of the 88 Generation Students group.
It was unclear exactly what caused the wounded protesters’ burns but President Thein Sein’s office denied local media allegations that some kind of chemical weapon was used.
In a statement Thursday it said that water cannon, tear gas and smoke bombs were deployed against the protesters, but later retracted the statement without giving a reason.
In a sign of spreading tensions, about 200 monks staged a rally in the central city of Mandalay on Friday demanding an apology from the government.
“We strongly condemn the crackdown on the monks. Many were seriously injured,” monk Thawbita, one of the leaders of the protest at a pagoda in Mandalay, told AFP by telephone.
“This kind of sit-down protest by monks will continue around the country in the coming days until they apologise,” he said.