Five days of street protests over chronic power shortages present Myanmar’s reformist government with a headache and an opportunity.
Police forcibly dispersed protesters in the central Myanmar town of Pyi on Thursday, a heavy-handed response reminiscent of the previous military junta that could fuel grievances among an impoverished and long-neglected people.
But state television also announced emergency measures on Wednesday to boost electricity supplies, suggesting a government that realises how popular discontent could derail its reform process and irk the United States and Europe, which recently suspended sanctions on this once-isolated country.
The danger is that these protests spark similar anger over other bread-and-butter issues bedevilling the people – high food and fuel prices and jobs for instance.
“If they want us to stop protesting, they will have to give 24-hour electricity and more human rights,” said K Lwin, a 20-year-old student who joined about 100 others on Thursday for a third night of protests in Yangon, the country’s largest city.
“I hate the previous government. The new government is better… but they can improve.”
The protests are the latest challenge for reformist President Thein Sein who has freed hundreds of political prisoners, started peace talks with ethnic minority rebel groups and held historic by-elections that catapulted Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party into parliament.
Western governments have begun unwinding decades of sanctions slapped on the previously isolated nation because of the fast-paced and historic reforms.
Last year, in what was one of the first signs of Myanmar’s new era, Thein Sein bowed to public pressure and cancelled the Myitsone dam being built on the Irrawaddy River by the Chinese. Power generated from the $3.6 billion project would have gone to neighbouring China.
The power protests have produced what could be another Myitsone moment: a chance for the government to prove it knows how to listen.
It has vowed to rush in six 2-megawatt generators bought from US company Caterpillar Inc and two 25-megawatt gas turbines from US conglomerate general Electric Co..
With broken-down power stations and a dilapidated national grid, Myanmar will need more than a few generators and turbines to make up its power shortfall. Its plants have been generating about 1,340 megawatts during a recent drought, state media said, while power demand has been as high as 1,850 megawatts.
Protesters have accused the former military government of enriching itself at public expense by selling natural gas to China while Myanmar, among Asia’s poorest countries, faces frequent power outages.
“There is so much electricity on the other side in China. There’s almost nothing here,” read a sign held by one Yangon protester.
That message seems to have reached Beijing, where Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters on Thursday that Chinese companies had “respect for relevant Myanmar laws and rules”.
“What we understand is that during these protests the vast majority of people are clearly aware where the problem is when it comes to the present lack of power in certain parts of Myanmar,” said Hong, adding that protesters’ anger was directed at Myanmar’s overstretched power grid rather than China’s energy imports.
THE RIGHT DIRECTION
The demonstrations are the biggest since a 2007 monk-led uprising in which dozens were killed and hundreds arrested.
“They should continue until they achieve their goal of 24-hour electricity,” said Su Mingalu, a 28-year-old monk, who on Thursday watched the evening march at Sule Pagoda, a rallying point for the 2007 protests sparked by rising fuel prices.
“Now we have more freedoms than before. We can talk freely. The government has moved forward the right way but they are not totally perfect but that’s why this protest is important.”
Myanmar’s newspapers have taken full advantage of a relaxation of media controls to report widely on the demonstrations, where protesters have been mobbed by local journalists and photographers.
“Most weekly papers are printing photos and stories about the protests, so they could get bigger,” said Thiha Saw, editor of business monthly Myanma Dana.
“This problem can’t be solved in a day or a week. It’ll take some time to come up with a plan.”
Social networking sites have also been instrumental in spreading the word. Facebook users are circulating a photograph of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, taken before the current protests began, holding a candle, a symbol of the current protests.
On April 1, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 43 seats in Myanmar’s fledgling parliament and the power shortages were a regular theme during campaigning.
Editor Thiha Saw believes the protests will subside when the rainy season arrives in the next two weeks or so and the hydroelectric dams fill up. But the worry is that the protests dovetail with other long-simmering causes of discontent.
Thousands of workers have been striking for better pay and conditions at factories on Yangon’s outskirts.
“Because there is not enough electricity, the workers from the garment industry will lose their jobs,” said protest organiser Han Win Aung.
Power consumption in Myanmar, where only 25 percent of the population has access to the national grid, is one of the world’s lowest, averaging 104 kilowatts an hour per person, rivalling the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nepal, according to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.-By Andrew R.C. Marshall and Jason Szep