Protesters returned to the streets of Myanmar’s main city Yangon for a second day on Wednesday, defying a police request to disperse as they explore the extent of freedoms under the reformist regime.
The country’s first major demonstrations since a deadly 2007 crackdown on monk-led protests are being closely watched as a test of the new quasi-civilian government’s tolerance of public discontent.
About 250 protesters gathered at the Sule Pagoda, in central Yangon, holding candles or placards calling for 24-hour electricity, watched by hundreds of onlookers, according to an AFP reporter.
They ignored a request by the authorities to leave, saying they would gather for three consecutive evenings, although another group of what appeared to be farmers called off a rally in a nearby location.
“We are protesting peacefully for 24-hour electricity. Police came and asked us to leave but we didn’t go. We will continue our protest. We are just asking for what we need,” protester Han Win Aung, a former political prisoner, told AFP.
The impoverished country suffers crippling power cuts, with six-hour blackouts commonplace in Yangon and outages three times as long in Mandalay, another major city.
“We are not protesting, just asking for more electricity. We get only about six hours a day,” said Yangon resident Zaw Lin Aung.
Asked if he was worried about being arrested, he replied: “I have to suffer like others. So I will continue.”
The demonstrations began in Mandalay over the weekend and later spread to Yangon.
A 2007 monk-led “Saffron Revolution”, which was brutally crushed by the military, began as protests against rising fuel prices.
The latest rallies come after President Thein Sein’s reform-minded government approved a bill allowing authorised peaceful protests, one of a series of reformist moves since the end of army rule last year.
Under the new law demonstrators are required to seek permission five days in advance in order to hold a protest, or risk one year in jail.
Demonstrators in Mandalay did not have approval when they began their protest.
Officials said earlier Wednesday they had not been given any orders on how to handle the current rallies, despite the brief detention Tuesday of several members of the opposition National League for Democracy party in Mandalay.
“The police are just trying to handle the situation the best they can by asking the protesters to disperse,” a government official told AFP, requesting anonymity.
“I think they (the demonstrators) are seeing how much they can protest under the new government.”
Another official added authorities are “waiting for instructions from our superiors” to guide their response.
In a rare sop to public opinion, state newspapers have run articles explaining energy policy in a country where only 13 percent of the population has access to electricity, according to 2009 figures from the World Bank.