YANGON Myanmar's government has apologised for injuries, including serious burns, suffered last month by monks and others when riot police cleared camps set up to protest against evictions caused by the expansion of a copper mine.
Minister of Religious Affairs Myint Maung made a formal apology to 29 senior monks and said police regretted the incident, state-owned television reported late on Friday.
Activists said at least 50 people had been injured when riot police moved in at the Monywa mine in the northwest region of Sagaing on November 29. That included more than 20 Buddhist monks, some with burns blamed on incendiary devices thrown by police.
The mine is operated by the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd working with a unit of China North Industries Corp, a Chinese weapons manufacturer.
Anger had grown at the heavy-handed police intervention, reminiscent of the way dissent was stifled under the junta that ruled Myanmar for half a century until President Thein Sein's quasi-civilian, reformist government took office in March 2011.
As monks protested around the country, Thein Sein quickly asked opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to head an investigation into the incident and the copper mine project.
"The policemen who had to discharge their duties were extremely sorrowful that monks, some novices and other persons were wounded in the copper mining project incident," Myint Maung told the monks, adding that the government would do its utmost to ensure such "undesirable incidents" did not happen again.
"It was found that the monks and novices carried no guilt as they were young and had no knowledge of political tricks," he said.
No mention was made of how the burns were caused. The authorities had previously said police had used tear gas and water cannon.
At a news conference on Thursday, Suu Kyi said it would be premature to blame anyone for the incident.
"It is impossible to satisfy everyone in such an inquiry," she said. "The commission will do its best to reveal the truth and make the best suggestions bravely for the long-term interests of the country, the people, and for cementing democracy."
She said compromise would be necessary between villagers and the operators of the mine.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has called the episode a test case for the government's willingness to allow peaceful protest and make the security forces accountable for abuses.
Residents say the $1 billion mine expansion involves the unlawful confiscation of more than 7,800 acres (3,160 hectares) of land.
(Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Paul Tait)