After seeing the violent crackdown on peaceful protesters who occupied a copper mine in central Burma, many cynics believe that we have finally seen the true colors of President Thein Sein and his “reformist” government.
The former general has been thoroughly mocked on social media, with his top peace award bestowed by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group this week particularly ripe for ridicule. One online activist published an image comparing Thein Sein to his former boss Snr-Gen Than Shwe—dubbed “monk killer” after the violent crackdown on the Buddhist clergy-led Saffron Revolution pro-democracy demonstrations in 2007.
Thursday’s pre-dawn raid left dozens of unarmed demonstrators, the majority of whom Buddhist monks, seriously injured.
Tensions at the copper mine have been rising since mid-November with protesters disrupting workers by linking arms to block the path of trucks at the construction site, and erecting camps nearby. More than 7,800 acres of land from 26 villages under the shadow of the Letpadaung mountain range have been seized to make way for the Chinese-backed project since it began last year.
Local villagers have been staging protests to demand its closure, citing environmental destruction, forced relocations and illegal land confiscation. And this is only one of many similarly controversial projects in Burma.
Several prominent activists have also visited the area to pledge support, including members of the 88 Generation Students group.
The mining project is a joint venture between the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEH) and China’s Wan Bao Company. The association between the two firms raised alarm bells among activists who asked for the contract to be made accountable to the public.
The Chinese firm’s involvement also raised serious concerns as Wan Bao is a subsidiary of the North Industries Corporation, China’s main weapons manufacturer.
The influence of Beijing in Burma cannot be discounted and anti-China sentiment is also on the rise. As Burma opens its doors to Western investors, with the US relaxing sanctions and normalizing relations with the former pariah state, Beijing becomes more nervous.
The crackdown took place barely two weeks after US President Barack Obama made a historic visit to Rangoon during which he hailed Thein Sein’s reformist credentials.
But China is always watching.
Last week, Aung Min, a minister attached to the Burmese President’s Office, visited the area and met local people protesting the project. To the astonishment of many present, the minister publicly admitted, “We are afraid of China… If China asks for compensation, even the Myitsone Dam shutdown would cost US $3 billion.”
Beijing has long been staunch supporter of Burma’s brutal military regime and served as a lifeline by providing arms and shielding the former junta from international censure, particularly by blocking resolutions of the United Nations Security Council.
“So we don’t dare to have a row with China!” said Aung Min a few days before the crackdown. This was a sign that action was imminent. Top government officials had their minds made up to stop the protest.
Now the Burmese people are questioning who ordered the raid and why the riot police suddenly charged into the camps and viciously assaulted unarmed protesters.
The crackdown showed once again that the government, which claims to have turned over a new leaf and to listen to public opinion, is only really protecting its own interests and those of foreign investors.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently visiting Monywa, previously called for responsible investment and the government to be accountable and transparent. In reality, Thein Sein’s administration decided to side with the Burmese military’s conglomerate company UMEH and its foreign partner Wan Bao.
This ugly and brutal crackdown is an indelible black mark on Thein Sein’s ostensibly reformist government. Once again we understand that Burma’s ongoing political opening remains reversible.