YANGON Riot police fired water cannon and tear gas early on Thursday to disperse people protesting against the forced eviction of villagers in north-western Myanmar to make way for a copper mine expansion, residents and activists said.
Truckloads of police arrived at camps set up near the Monywa mine in the Sagaing region to protest against the $1 billion (624.4 million pounds) project, which locals say has meant 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, two of whom were in 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.
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).
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 had 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.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace laureate and a member of parliament, was due to visit the protest site on Thursday to hear the grievances of the protesting villagers.
Under the military regime that ruled Myanmar for almost half a century until 2011, UMEHL operated with impunity.
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.
(Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Paul Tait)