Myanmar officials used tear gas and water cannon on hundreds of people protesting outside of a Chinese-owned copper mine Thursday, sending dozens to the hospital. The unprecedented public outcry is a sign of liberalization in Myanmar after 50 years of military rule. 

Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, reported that protesters fear the copper mining project in Monywa, operated by military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd in partnership with the Chinese Wanbao Mining company, will ruin the livelihoods of the local people. 

Local residents, students and Buddhist monks gathered at the mining site to protest the environmental dangers and land seizures for the $1 billion project. 

Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi arrived in Monywa several hours after the riot had been suppressed  in an attempt to mediate. 

The government issued a statement defending the mining project as creating jobs for local residents and operating under environmental safeguards. But local sources tell Reuters that several villages, monasteries and schools have been displaced already.

Protests have continued in defiance of curfews and bans imposed by the Myanmar Home Ministry. Opponents have also resorted to vandalizing the project site and harassing mining staff, the government says. The protests have forced work to halt since Nov. 17.  

Under the military junta that was in power until March 2012, the Army-connected Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd operated with impunity. 

Now that reformist President Thein Sein is in office, villagers are beginning to speak more freely  about grievances that previously would have been silenced.