MONYWA, Myanmar (AP) — Security forces used water cannons, tear gas and smoke bombs Thursday to clear protesters from a copper mine in northwestern Myanmar, wounding villagers and Buddhist monks just hours before opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrived in the area to hear their grievances.
Monks and other protesters had serious burns after the crackdown at the Letpadaung mine near the town of Monywa.
"I didn't expect to be treated like this, as we were peacefully protesting," said Aung Myint Htway, a peanut farmer whose face and body were covered with black patches of burned skin.
The police action risks becoming a public relations and political fiasco for the reformist government of President Thein Sein, which has been touting its transition to democracy after almost five decades of repressive military rule.
"This is unacceptable," said Ottama Thara, a 25-year-old monk who was at the protest. "This kind of violence should not happen under a government that says it is committed to democratic reforms."
Suu Kyi's visit to nearby Kan Kone village had been scheduled before the crackdown, and thousands of people were waiting to hear speak Thursday afternoon.
The Nobel Peace laureate, elected to parliament after spending most of the last two decades under house arrest, greeted supporters as her car drove slowly through the crowds, but the vehicle drove past the stage where she was supposed to speak. She instead headed to the mine to talk to its operators before making her speech.
The protesters oppose the environmental and social damage they say is being caused by the mining operation, which is a joint venture between a Chinese company and a holding company controlled by Myanmar's military. Most people remain suspicious of the military, while China is widely seen as having propped up army rule for years, in addition to being an aggressive investor exploiting the country's many natural resources.
Government officials had publicly stated that the protest risked scaring off foreign investment that is key to rebuilding the economy after decades of neglect.
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 the protesters began occupying the mine area Nov. 18, and operations had been halted since then.
Some villagers among a claimed 1,000 protesters left the mine after the order was issued. But others stayed through Wednesday, including about 100 monks. Police moved in to disperse them early Thursday.
"Around 2:30 a.m. police announced they would give us five minutes to leave," Aung Myint Htway said. He said police fired water cannons first and then shot what he and others called flare guns.
"They fired black balls that exploded into fire sparks. They shot about six times. People ran away and they followed us," he said, still writhing hours later from pain. "It's very hot."
Photos of the wounded monks showed they had sustained serious burns on parts of their bodies. It was unclear what sort of weapon caused them, or whether the burns were caused by their shelters catching fire from whatever devices police used.
The protesters' concerns about the mine do not appear to be widely shared by the broader public. But hurting monks — as admired for their social activism as they are revered for their spiritual beliefs — is sure to antagonize many ordinary people, especially as Suu Kyi's visit highlights the events.
Aung Myint Htway said he didn't care that police treated him badly but added, "I won't forgive them for what they did to our monks."
According to a nurse at a Monywa hospital, 27 monks and one other person were admitted with burns caused by some sort of projectile that released sparks or embers. Two monks with serious injuries were sent for treatment in Mandalay, Myanmar's second-biggest city, a 2½ hour drive away.
Other evicted protesters gathered at a Buddhist temple about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the mine's gates.
The government defended its actions in a statement issued Thursday afternoon and broadcast over state television. It denied using excessive force and said it used fire hoses, tear gas and smoke bombs according to international standards for riot control.
The statement declared that the authorities took action for the sake of rule of law and in the interests of the country and its people, and said the project operated in accordance with international standards to protect the environment.
The protest is the latest major example of increased activism by citizens since the elected government took over last year. Political and economic liberalization under 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. However, the military still retains major influence over the government, and some critics fear that democratic gains could easily be rolled back.
In Myanmar's main city of Yangon, six activists who staged a small protest against the mine were detained Monday and Tuesday, said one of their colleagues, who asked not to be identified because he did not want to attract attention from the authorities.