Buddhist monks sue Burma minister over 'use of chemicals on protesters'

The Guardian, March 16, 2015

Human rights group Justice Trust claims that 57 monks suffered severe burns after police broke up demonstration at a mine in 2012

Rangoon, Burma -- Buddhist monks have prepared a lawsuit against Burma’s interior minister that accuses police of using poisonous chemicals to break up a protest in 2012 and inflicting severe burns on demonstrators.

According to the Justice Trust, a human rights group working in Burma, the case will be a test of the government’s commitment to political reform.

The organisation claims that more than 100 monks needed hospital treatment for their injuries, and while 57 suffered deep burns requiring long-term medical care when police forcibly ended the demonstration at the country’s biggest mine near the ancient capital of Mandalay.

According to the monks and media reports, police lobbed tear gas and phosphorus grenades to disperse the protesters. However, the government has maintained that it used only tear gas and water cannon.

The Justice Trust said on Monday that it was supporting the monks in their case against Lt Gen Ko Ko, the home affairs minister.

Aung Thane, a lawyer with the group, said the monks had asked police last week to register a first information report, the first step in seeking legal redress, but this has not yet been done. They have also sent a letter to Burma’s president, Thein Sein, asking that the case be allowed to go to court, he added.

The home affairs ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

A semi-civilian government took power in Burma in 2011 after 49 years of military rule, but has struggled to deal with civilian unrest and has been accused of backsliding in its commitment to reform.

The mine is operated by Myanmar Wanbao, which is owned by the Chinese weapons manufacturer China North Industries Corp, and the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL), a vast holding company belonging to the military.

Villagers and monks were holding sit-in protests against a $1bn (£680m) expansion of the mine they said had evicted them from their land when the police action took place. The monks say it has destroyed or damaged the holy sites of a famous Buddhist teacher who died in 1923.

An order to clear the protest sites came from “our superiors” in the home affairs ministry, which oversees the police and the Sagaing division government, police Lt Col Thura Thwin Ko Ko told Reuters in 2012.

Tikha Nyana, a monk who suffered burns to 60% of his body and underwent surgery in neighbouring Thailand, said: “We’re trying to file this case because we want to show the people that we shouldn’t tolerate such injustice.”

Local residents have continued to protest against the Letpadaung mine in Monywa, about 60 miles (100km) west of Mandalay, saying that thousands of acres of land have been confiscated to enable the project to proceed.