Myanmar's government ordered protesters Tuesday night to cease their occupation of a copper mine by midnight or face legal action.
State television broadcast an announcement of the order for villagers and other protesters to abandon six camps they had set up at the Letpadaung mine near Monywa in northwestern Myanmar.
The protesters claim the mine is causing environmental, social and health problems. The project is a joint venture between a Chinese firm and a company controlled by Myanmar's military.
The protest is the latest example of increased activism by citizens since an elected government took over last year following almost five decades of repressive military rule. Political and economic liberalization under President 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, this protest, which began in August, poses a direct challenge to the army because of its financial interest in the mine. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is to visit the area on Thursday to hear the protesters' grievances, adding to the pressure on Thein Sein's army-backed government.
The announcement ordering an end to the occupation said operations at the copper mine had been halted since Nov. 18, after protesters occupied the area.
Win Kyawt Hmu, a protester contacted by phone, said some villagers had begun to leave the mining site after authorities read out the order to vacate the area. He said there had been nearly 1,000 protesters at the six occupation camps, including at least 300 Buddhist monks. Buddhist monks in Myanmar have traditionally been closely involved in social protests. It wasn't immediately possible to confirm those figures.
He said the monks and about 50 villagers remained at the main camp, near the offices of the Chinese partner in the mine, Wan Bao Co. Ltd.
The announcement said parliament had decided to form a committee to investigate the situation at the mine, but could not start its work until it resumes operation.