The Burmese government has questioned the findings of a new independent report, which alleged that riot police used white phosphorous in a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters near a controversial Chinese copper mine last year, and accused its authors of attempting to “influence” the official investigation.
“We will only consider the report from the official inquiry led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” the president’s spokesperson, Ye Htut told DVB on Friday. “Any report given out by some individual groups based on very limited evidence – we see as trying to force the decision of the commission of inquiry led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.”
On Thursday, an unofficial investigation led by the Lawyers’ Network (Myanmar) and the US-based Justice Trust, found that Burmese riot police had used a military-issue chemical agent, known as white phosphorous, to disperse a group of peaceful protestors rallying near a military-backed copper mine in central Burma. The use of white phosphorous in military combat is illegal under international law.
The report alleged to have found scientific evidence of the use of the chemical agent, which inflicted second and third-degree burns on over 100 monks and villagers protesting the expansion of the Latpadaung copper mine in Monywa. It also cited numerous eyewitness accounts and photographic evidence.
“Everything that the fireballs touched instantly burst into flames despite the area being soaked in water. The covering tarps and blankets used by protesters for shelter and protection caught fire. The monks’ robes and villagers’ clothing also caught fire,” said the report.
The police have previously admitted to using tear gas and water cannons against the protestors, but denied using incendiary devices. The crackdown caused national outrage and forced senior government ministers to publicly apologise to members of Burma’s revered monkhood, known as the Sangha.
The crackdown followed mass protests over the summer against the mining project, which campaigners say has resulted in more than 7,800 acres of land being grabbed from 26 villages across the nearby mountain range.
On 1 December, the government formed an official commission, led by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to investigate the clashes and controversy surrounding the mining project, which is a joint-venture between the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd and the Chinese Wanbao company.
A few days later its mandate was whittled down to exclude the “causes of the protests” along with the “control measures” used by the police. The commission, which has twice delayed the publication of its final report, has also been criticised for having members that are known to be supporters of the previous military regime.
But Ye Htut insisted that Suu Kyi had pledged to address all the issues. “[She] said clearly in an interview that she will be looking at the riot control [measures used] that night. But we will not know until the commission’s final report comes out.”
Inside sources also told DVB that Suu Kyi will be visiting the Myanmar Defence Industries’ factory near Naypyidaw, where chemical grenades may have been produced.
“Apparently, it is true the devices used in the crackdown were tear gas bombs,” a local source, whose close relative works at the factory, told DVB on the condition of anonymity. But he said they may have been accidentally laced with excessive amounts of chemical agents, and that the military has been testing their tear gas arsenal ahead of Suu Kyi’s visit.
“According to my [relative], they locked down the football field [nearby] and were testing their tear gas bombs. She said some of the bombs burst into fireballs. The factory is marking the serial numbers of the flammable ones and separating them from the ones to be demonstrated for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Protests against the controversial project have resumed and activists have stepped up pressure on the government to take action against those responsible for the bloody crackdown last November. Roger Normand, director of the Justice Trust, yesterday called on a credible investigation into the causes of the violence.
“[He] questioned who issued those white phosphorous military chemical weapons to the police force and where the order to crack down came from,” said Aung Thein from the Lawyers’ Network (Myanmar).
President Thein Sein has been credited for introducing a number of democratic reforms in Burma since March 2011, including easing restrictions on the right to protest. But peaceful protesters are still required to seek permission five days in advance, and many land rights activists, who have breached these regulations, have been sentenced to jail. The investigation into the Latpadaung crackdown is seen by many as a key test for the reformist credentials of Burma’s quasi-civilian regime.
-Additional reporting by Min Lwin