YANGON Riot police fired water cannon and tear gas early on Thursday to disperse people protesting against the forced eviction of villagers in northwestern Myanmar to make way for a copper mine expansion, residents and activists said.
Land disputes are a growing problem in Myanmar. Protests were suppressed quickly under the junta in place until last year but have become more common as President Thein Sein has opened up the country and pushed through reforms.
Truckloads of police arrived at camps set up near the Monywa mine in the Sagaing region to protest against the $1 billion expansion, which locals say has caused the unlawful confiscation of more than 7,800 acres (3,160 hectares) of land.
"They started to disperse the crowd by using water cannon at Kyaw Ywa camp at about 2:55 a.m.," Shin Oattama, a Buddhist monk who had been helping the villagers, told Reuters by telephone.
"They then shot some sort of canisters that caused fire at the camp. We just don't know what sort of weapon it was." He said about 10 monks were injured and two of them were in a critical condition.
"We are now seeking refuge at a nearby village. There's no ambulance, no doctor to take care of the injured," he said.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace laureate and a member of parliament, planned to visit the protesters on Thursday to hear their grievances. Officials from her National League for Democracy (NLD) party said she flew out of Yangon early in the day.
She was due to fly to the central city of Mandalay and then travel northwest to Sagaing. NLD official Ohn Kyaing said she had been told of developments before she left.
The copper mine is run by a unit of China North Industries Corp, a leading Chinese weapons manufacturer, under a deal signed in June 2010 after Canada's Ivanhoe Mines Ltd pulled out in 2007.
It is backed by the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL).
UMEHL operated with impunity under the military regime that ruled Myanmar for almost half a century until 2011.
However, emboldened by reforms under President Thein Sein, who took office in March 2011, villagers are pushing back and testing the limits of newfound freedoms, including a relaxation of laws on public protests.
Authorities had warned the protesters late on Tuesday to clear the site by midnight that day so that a parliamentary commission could carry out an investigation. State television said all project work had been halted since November 18 because of the protests.
Myo Thant, a member of the 88 Generation Students Group who has been monitoring the situation in Monywa, said: "Police used tear gas canisters. Gun shots were not heard. So far as we know, three Buddhist monks were injured in the fire that broke out at one of the camps. Nobody knows for sure how the fire started."
Protests stretching back at least three months have involved thousands of locals and supporters. They told Reuters in September that four of 26 villages at the project site had already been displaced, along with monasteries and schools.