MONYWA, Myanmar (AP) — Hundreds of Buddhist monks and villagers occupying a copper mine in northwestern Myanmar defied a government order to leave by Wednesday, 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 repressive military rule.
Political and economic liberalization under President Thein Sein has won praise from Western governments, which have eased sanctions imposed on the previous military government because of its poor record on human and civil rights.
But the mine protest is clearly an irritant to Thein Sein's government, which warned it could deter badly needed foreign investment.
The mine is a joint venture between a Chinese firm and a company controlled by Myanmar's military. China is a major investor and strategic ally of Myanmar, and the backing of the military is crucial to government stability.
State television broadcast an announcement 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, after protesters occupied the area.
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 Wednesday had made no effort to evict them, aside from reading the order for them to leave.
"We strongly condemn last night's order from the Home Ministry," said Thwe Thwe Win, one of the protest leaders. "We will not stop our protest until our demands are met."
Asked if they were concerned about being arrested, she said, "We will face difficulties, but we will continue our protest."
There was no immediate reaction from authorities. In the main city of Yangon, however, six anti-mine activists who staged a small protest were detained Monday and Tuesday, said one of their colleagues, who asked not to be identified because he did not want to attract more attention from authorities.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is to visit the mine area on Thursday to hear the protesters' grievances, adding to the pressure on the government. Her visit is also bound to draw more attention to the protest, which partly due to its remote location has been largely ignored.
The main protest encampment near the offices of the Chinese mining partner, Wan Bao Co., appeared well-established Wednesday, with villagers cooking fried noodles and rice to share with the monks.
Buddhist monks in Myanmar have traditionally been closely involved in social protests.
The company has put up signboards extolling its projects, with slogans such as "Responsible mining, sustainable growth," ''More job opportunities, better living standard," and "Friendship, trust and harmonious community."
In counterpoint, the protesters have posted handwritten signs and placards saying "Our mountain, do not invade it," ''Do not invade farmland" and "Stop UMEHL," the initials of the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd., the military partner in the mining venture. The project covers 3,184 hectares (7,868 acres) of land.
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.
"We came from far away and they shouldn't kick us out like animals. They shouldn't do this to monks," said Withaithtadama, 21, from Mandalay.
He said the protesters insist on a comprehensive environmental impact assessment before any work is resumed at the mine.
The government's surprise suspension last year of a Chinese-backed hydroelectric project in response to similar concerns about social and economic consequences was seen as a significant indicator of its commitment to democratic reform.
But Thein Sein's ministers have warned about offending Myanmar's big neighbor to the north.
President's Office Minister Aung Min told villagers at a recent meeting in Monywa that he would submit their demands to the president, but also told them to be careful not to upset China.
Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Wai Lwin gave an even stronger defense of the mining project in parliament. He warned that if the protest succeeded in stopping it, it would discourage further foreign investment.
"Under the previous military government, the development of our country lagged 20 years behind because of sanctions," he said. "At present, when the country is becoming democratic and about to enjoy catching up in technology, we are facing protests that could hamper development."
He also defended the involvement of the army's holding company, saying it was established with the aim of helping the welfare of soldiers. The Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. is one of two major conglomerates operated by the military.