Largest demonstrations since Saffron Revolution as Burmese protesters take to streets over power cuts


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The Independent Online

Debilitating power cuts in Burma have pushed hundreds of protesters out on to the streets in the biggest public demonstrations since the Saffron Revolution five years ago. Several members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party have reportedly been detained.

Crowds took to the streets on the country’s second largest city, Mandalay, to protest over load-shedding that has left residents with as little as four or five hours of electricity a day and subsequent gatherings are planned for other towns.

“Everyone was holding lit candles and walking,” one protester, a Mandalay cartoonist known by his pen-name Hercule, told the Agence France-Presse. “They were not from any political party - there is no leader. The demonstration was started online and expanded as people talked about it on Internet. The authorities did not disturb the demonstration.”

The demonstrations represent a fresh challenge for the authorities, headed by President Thein Sein, which last year introduced legislation that allowed peaceful protests if campaigners gave five days notice to the police.

While the protesters in Mandalay did not obtain permission, police permitted the gatherings on Sunday and Monday to go ahead. However, reports from the city yesterday suggested several members of Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy were held by the police after further demonstrations.

Protests are rare in Burma, despite the shift to a purportedly-civilian government that has introduced a series of reforms that have won praise and diplomatic engagement from the West. The current demonstrations are the biggest since tens of thousands of citizens and Buddhist monks took to the streets in September 2007 to protest over soaring fuel prices and to demand democratic reforms. The junta used deadly force to crush the protests and hundreds of people were thrown into jail.

The current demonstrations have apparently unnerved the authorities. Yesterday, three state-operated newspapers carried a “Plea to the Public”. The message from the power ministry claimed that rationing was being applied in order to cope with greater demand and decreased supply during the summer months. It also blamed ethnic Kachin rebels for blowing up several electricity pylons in the north of the country.

But in Mandalay, residents have accused the government of being unable to meet domestic demands because it is selling power to China and Thailand. Reports suggest that up to 75 per cent of the population does not have regular access to electricity and for decades there was inadequate investment in power infrastructure. Most businesses have to use back-up generators to provide their own supply.