Authorities Quiz Power-Cut Protesters

Burmese authorities take some in for questioning after the largest protests in the country in years.
2012-05-22
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Demonstrators pray during a candlelight protest at the Sule Pagoda in Rangoon, May 22, 2012.
AFP

The Burmese government has detained residents and opposition party members who participated in large protests against electricity blackouts amid rising public anger over chronic power shortages in the country.

The government also issued a rare plea to the public to understand the need for the “electricity rationing” which it said is critical to cater to increasing demand.

The protests, the country’s biggest in five years, entered their third day Tuesday as they spread to Rangoon, Burma’s largest city, where about 100 people held a candlelit vigil near the Sule Paya pagoda.

The Rangoon gathering followed earlier demonstrations the northern cities of Mandalay and Monywa on Sunday and Monday night against blackouts that have worsened in the past three months, leaving residents with as little as five hours of power per day.

Authorities in Mandalay brought residents in for questioning on Tuesday morning, after some 1,000 people protested the night before, demanding 24-hour electricity supply, according to some of those who were detained.

Interrogated

Well-known writer Nyi Pu Lay, who participated in the demonstration Monday night, said police interrogated him about who had organized the protest.

“They asked me, ‘Who are the leaders of the demonstrations held over the past two days here in Mandalay demanding 24-hour electricity? Which organizations are behind this movement?,’” he told RFA’s Burmese service.

While police from the Bureau of Special Investigation questioned him for several hours at their office near Mandalay Hill, he saw that seven other city residents had also been brought in and asked the same questions, the writer said.

According to Agence France-Presse, several members of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy were also taken in for questioning.

Police told Nyi Pu Lay the government “is still working on a Freedom of Expression Act that is not finished yet,” suggesting the demonstrations were not lawful, he said.  

Protests are extremely rare in Burma, which, until last year, was ruled by a military junta.  Since then, Burma’s nominally civilian government that took power last year has implemented a series of reforms, including introducing a law allowing peaceful protest.

Rare statement

In response to the protests over the power shortages—the country’s largest since the 2007 Saffron Revolution, when demonstrations sparked by soaring gas prices triggered a brutal crackdown—the authorities issued a rare statement of appeal to the public on Tuesday.

Burma’s Electric Power Ministry issued a statement in all three state-run newspapers Tuesday under the headline, "Plea to the Public," asking the people “to cooperate by sparingly using electricity.”

It blamed the shortages on increased demand at the start of summer and on fighting with ethnic Kachin rebels in the north. "Please understand that electricity rationing had to be introduced," the statement said.

But protesters said the shortages are due to the government selling electricity to neighboring countries, demanding that the government stop the practice.

Burma had previously announced plans to construct hydropower dams that would have supplied electricity to China—including the Myitsone Dam on the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River which was suspended in September following opposition to the project.

Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin Maung Soe. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.