Hundreds of Buddhist monks and villagers occupying a copper mine in northwestern Myanmar defied a government order to leave by yesterday, saying they will stay until the project is halted.
The protesters, who have set up six camps at the site, say the Letpadaung Mine near the town of Monywa is causing environmental, social and health problems.
The protest is the latest major example of increased activism by citizens since an elected government took over last year following almost five decades of military rule.
Political and economic liberalization under Burmese President Thein Sein has won praise from Western governments, which have eased sanctions imposed on the previous military government.
However, the mine protest is clearly an irritant to the government, which warned it could deter badly needed foreign investment.
The mine is a joint venture between Chinese firm Wan Bao Co and a Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, a company controlled by the Burmese military.
State television broadcast an announcement on Tuesday night that ordered protesters to cease their occupation of the mine by midnight or face legal action. It said operations at the mine had been halted since Nov. 18 by the occupation.
There had been nearly 1,000 protesters at the mine and some left after the announcement, said Win Kyawt Hmu, a protester. The number remaining was hard to judge, but appeared to include at least 100 Buddhist monks. Armed police have been deployed near the protesters, but as of late yesterday had made no effort to evict them.
In the main city of Yangon, six anti-mine activists who staged a small protest were detained on Monday and Tuesday, said one of their colleagues, who asked not to be identified.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is to visit the mine area today to hear the protesters’ grievances, adding to the pressure on the government. Her visit is bound to draw more attention to the protest, which partly due to its remote location has been largely ignored.
The main protest encampment appeared well-established, with villagers cooking fried noodles and rice to share with the monks.
Buddhist monks in Myanmar have traditionally been closely involved in social protests.
A monk who said he joined the protest a month ago said the announcement ordering them to leave was insulting because it was issued only four hours ahead of the deadline.
Withaithtadama, 21, said the protesters insist on a comprehensive environmental impact assessment before mine operations resume.
The government’s surprise suspension last year of a Chinese-backed hydroelectric project in response to similar concerns was seen as a significant indicator of its commitment to democratic reform.
However, Thein Sein’s ministers have warned about offending Myanmar’s big neighbor to the north.