Raid on Burmese mine protesters
Security forces in Burma mounted a violent raid yesterday against Buddhist monks and villagers who have been protesting the expansion of a copper mine.
The crackdown was the largest since the civilian government of President Thein Sein came to power 20 months ago.
Witnesses said dozens of monks and other protesters were injured when the security forces used incendiary devices that set fire to protesters' encampments outside the offices of the Chinese company in charge of the project.
The company has a partnership with the powerful military in Burma, also known as Myanmar.
Photographs from Burmese online news sites showed monks, who are highly revered in the country and are often involved in political causes, with singed robes stuck to their badly seared skin.
The raid came hours before Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and leader of the opposition in Parliament, was scheduled to visit the city of Monywa, near the mine.
Her visit underlined the widespread support the protests had engendered across the country before the raid.
Analysts said the brutal way in which the crackdown was carried out could hamper Thein Sein's efforts to convince the country that his government has made a clean break from the military governments that ruled the country for five decades.
"There will be political consequences," said Thiha Saw, editor of Open News Journal and Myanma Danna magazine. "This may be the start of an uglier phase for the government. Things may get a little more complicated."
The crackdown was conducted by security forces who have little experience using modern crowd-control methods that are meant to minimise casualties. During military rule, dissent was brutally repressed and protesters on several occasions were shot to death in the streets.
In yesterday's raid, security forces fired what one witness described to The Associated Press as "black balls that exploded into fire" to disperse the protesters, who had overstayed a Wednesday deadline set by the government to leave the area.
Factory workers and villagers, both ethnic Burmese and members of minorities, have taken advantage of new freedom under Thein Sein's government to carry out limited demonstrations and strikes in recent months.
The protests at the copper mine were by far the largest to appear since the former military junta ceded power to civilians in March 2011.
By dealing so forcefully with the mine protests, the government risks appearing to defend the vested interests of the old government. The project is typical of the kinds of opaque deals often struck during military rule that have enriched many of the country's generals.
The military has been so deeply involved in business that it has its own company, the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, that is listed as a part owner of the copper mine.