MONYWA, Myanmar (AP) — With rare hostility, villagers sharply criticized opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday as she traveled in northwestern Myanmar to explain why she supports a mining project opposed by many local residents.
Suu Kyi failed to persuade the villagers to accept the findings of an official panel she headed that the Letpadaung copper mine should be allowed to continue operating to encourage foreign investors to help the lagging economy.
At one point, residents barricaded their village in Monywa township with thorny brush and only allowed Suu Kyi to enter after she had shed some of her police escort and accompanying journalists.
The unwelcome reception was virtually unprecedented for the much-honored heroine of the country's pro-democracy movement. In the past, mobs organized by the military had tried to intimidate her, but most of her countrymen regarded her practically as a saint.
Suu Kyi's responsibilities have become more complicated now that her National League for Democracy party is no longer an embattled David fighting the Goliath of a military government, and instead is a competitor in the electoral politics of a fledgling democracy.
Last weekend, her party began a restructuring process for a 2015 general election in which Suu Kyi will face opposition from the army-backed party of President Thein Sein on one flank, and from hard-core anti-military activists on the other.
One of Suu Kyi's closest lieutenants, veteran journalist Win Tin, said she should heed the feelings of Monywa's residents, and that her failure to do so spurred anger and opposition.
Suu Kyi "may have her own good intentions, but she has failed to listen to the sentiments of the villagers," said Win Tin, 86, a co-founder of her party who like Suu Kyi was detained for years for his political work. "Money cannot always appease the people, because sometimes it is their pride and love for their hometown that will prevail over money."
The villagers in the Monywa area would once have been Suu Kyi's natural constituency — downtrodden farming people tired of oppressive military rule that failed to deliver prosperity. And not all the villagers were disenchanted Thursday. After a day of confrontations, as she arrived at the Monywa hotel where she was staying, a crowd of about 100 people greeted her with flowers, shouting, "We support you."
But the day — the second of her tour — had been a rough one for her.
Suu Kyi's panel concluded that honoring the mine contract was necessary, both to keep good relations with China because of the mine's Chinese joint venture partner, and to maintain the confidence of foreign investors whose help is needed to power economic growth.
Those seeking to stop the project contend that the $997 million deal, signed in May 2010, lacked transparency because it did not undergo parliamentary scrutiny under the previous military regime. They say the mine causes social and environmental problems and desecrates their mountain landscape.
Suu Kyi failed to change the minds of many villagers, who were also upset that her commission made little criticism of police who broke up an anti-mine protest in November using smoke bombs containing white phosphorous that severely burned scores of protesters, mostly Buddhist monks.
In its report made public Tuesday, the commission faulted police for failing to understand how the smoke bombs worked and recommended that they receive riot-control training, but failed to hold any officials accountable.
At Hsede village, a hotbed of opposition to the mine where villagers set up barricades of thorny brush, Suu Kyi spent more than an hour talking with angry protesters but failed to win them over.
Many villagers ran after her motorcade as it left, shouting, "Stop the project."
She encountered more anger at Tone village, where hundreds of furious residents shouted, "We want our Letpadaung mountain." In tears, women blamed Suu Kyi for the recommendation to continue the project and expressed regret for supporting her, saying they had harbored high hopes that her commission would call for the mine's closure.
Suu Kyi tried unsuccessfully to calm the crowd by explaining the potential benefits.
"Whether she can upgrade our living standard or not, we want our mountain. Even if they give many jobs to us, we don't want to be the servants of the Chinese," said Nyo Lay, referring to the mine's operators. "They took our land and will earn a lot. It's hurtful that the money they give to us is from what they get from our own land."
She said she lost her 10-acre (4-hectare) plot to the project, and now is a farm worker, earning less than a dollar a day.
Before leaving Monywa, Suu Kyi reflected on the villagers' reaction, saying it was not a matter of whether they made her feel bad.
"They want me to do what they want. I simply said no," she told reporters. "Anyone engaged in politics should have the courage to face animosity. It is not right to engage in politics to win popularity."