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.
But it is also clearly an irritant to Myanmar’s reform-minded government, which warned it could deter badly needed foreign investment in the country.
The mine is a joint venture between a Chinese firm and a company controlled by Myanmar’s military.
State television broadcast an announcement on Tuesday night that ordered protesters to cease their occupation of the mine by midnight that day or face legal action. It said operations at the mine had been halted since November 18, 2012 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 numbers remaining were hard to judge, but appeared to include at least 100 Buddhist monks.
“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.”
Protesters say they want the mining project “to be totally halted” and have asked that any government concessions on the issue be made publicly in front of the media. There was no immediate reaction from authorities.
The main protest encampment near the offices of the Chinese mining partner, Wan Bao Co., looked well-established on Wednesday, with villagers cooking fried noodles and sticky rice to share with more than 100 Buddhist monks staying in makeshift shelters.
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,” “Save the Letpaduang” referring to the mountain at the hub of the mine and “Stop UMEHL,” the initials of the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited, the military partner in the mining venture. The project covers 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. “We already told them that we want to see the project stop. ... Until they agree with what we ask, we will keep on protesting.”