- "We are very concerned about the protests," the Chinese firm involved in the mine says
- Aung San Suu Kyi visits the area and says she hopes for a peaceful solution
- Hundreds of protesters have been demonstrating against the mine project
- Police use tear gas and water cannons to clear protest camps, witnesses say
Myanmar security forces used tear gas and water cannons early Thursday to drive away hundreds of people protesting a copper mine project owned by the country's military and a Chinese company, witnesses said.
Riot police cleared away all the camps set up by protesters near Monywa township in the northern region of Sagaing, said Khin San Hlaing, a member of parliament in the region for the National League for Democracy, the opposition party led by Nobel laureate and pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi.
Dozens of protesters -- a mixture of local residents, students and monks -- were wounded in the police raids, Khin San Hlaing said, but some of them were hiding rather than seeking medial attention. So far, 29 people have been admitted to hospitals, she said, while others have been arrested.
The demonstrations are an indication of the willingness of citizens of Myanmar, also known as Burma, to test the limits of the greater political freedom ushered in during the past year and a half under President Thein Sein after decades of authoritarian military rule.
But the strong police reaction, coming less than two weeks after U.S. President Barack Obama visited Myanmar and emphasized the need to improve human rights in the country, has fueled doubts about the government's commitment to lasting reform.
"The crackdown showed once again that the government, which claims to have turned over a new leaf and to listen to public opinion, is only really protecting its own interests and those of foreign investors," said an article by The Irrawaddy, a magazine run by exiles from Myanmar based in Thailand.
Visiting Monywa later Thursday, Suu Kyi said she hoped the situation could be resolved "peacefully."
Without commenting directly on the early morning violence, she said she had met with representatives of the mine and also planned to talk to local residents and protesters to try to help negotiate a solution.
About 500 people had been demonstrating against the mine project near Monywa since November 17, expressing concern about its environmental impact and unhappiness about the way local people's land had been claimed for it.
Smaller protests had been taking place for months, and police in Yangon, the former capital, arrested eight activists demonstrating against the copper mine earlier this week.
The mine project, in a mountainous area near Monywa, has been operated by the military-owned Myanmar Economic Holding and the Chinese company Wanbao Mining. Covering an area of 3,184 hectares (7,868 acres), it received government approval in 2010.
Li Songgang, a spokesman for Wanbao Mining, said the company is "willing to communicate with residents and protesters, so as to work out practical solutions."
"We are very concerned about the protests," he said, noting the that company has had to suspend construction of the project, which is not yet operational.
His tone appeared more conciliatory than that of the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar, which said in a statement that issues related to the mine project such as relocation, compensation and environmental protection had been settled.
"We hope all levels of Myanmar society can create a favorable environment for the project's smooth operation based on respect for laws and regulations of Myanmar," the statement said.