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Monks to Sue Over Chemicals Used to End Protest

FILE - In this photo released by Eleven Media Group, an encampment occupied by protesters burns at the Letpadaung mine following a crackdown by security forces, near the town of Monywa, early Thursday morning, November 29, 2012.

Buddhist monks have prepared a lawsuit against Myanmar's interior minister, accusing police of using poisonous chemicals to break up a protest in 2012, the monks and a human rights organization said on Monday.

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

The rights group says more than 100 monks were hospitalized and 57 suffered deep burns requiring long-term medical care when police broke up the protest at the country's biggest mine, a copper 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 it used only tear gas and water cannon.

Justice Trust said it was supporting monks in their case against Lt. Gen. Ko Ko, the Home Affairs minister.

The monks requested police last week to register a first information report, the first step in seeking legal redress, but police have not done so yet, said Aung Thane, a lawyer with Justice Trust. They have also sent a letter to President Thein Sein asking that the case be allowed to go forward to a court, he said.

The Home Affairs ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

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

Military connections

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 $1 billion expansion of the mine that they said had evicted them from their land when the police action took place. 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 Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees the police, as well as the Sagaing Division government, Police Lt Col Thura Thwin Ko Ko told Reuters in 2012.

“We're trying to file this case because we want to show the people that we shouldn't tolerate such injustice,” said Tikha Nyana, a monk who suffered burns over 60 percent of his body and underwent multiple surgeries neighboring Thailand.

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

Police opened fire on protesters in December 2014 and killed one person.