Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of Burma’s largest city Tuesday for a second day of protests over chronic power cuts, effectively forcing the government to announce emergency measures aimed at restoring electricity to full capacity within weeks.
As many as 400 protesters defied police orders to disperse, and held a candlelight vigil Tuesday in downtown Rangoon near the Sule Paya Pagoda, which had been the focal point of pro-democracy protests in 1988 and 2007, both of which were brutally crushed by Burma’s former military regime.
The more recent of the two, led by monks and now known as the Saffron Revolution, had been sparked by protests over rising gas prices.
Htin Kyaw, one of the demonstrators, said that the people of Rangoon had been living in “dark nights” and were simply expressing grievances according to their rights under Burma’s constitution.
"We're not protesting, but peacefully expressing our rights," he said.
Police later directed the candlelight vigil to move from the streets to the pagoda compound, where they allowed it to continue. Protesters vowed to return for a third consecutive day if their demands remained unmet.
The vigil prompted Aung Khin, chairman of Rangoon’s electricity department, to pledge the restoration of 24-hour electricity to the city’s inhabitants within two weeks.
The government announced emergency measures Wednesday, including the purchase of six generators from U.S.-based Caterpillar Inc., which will be air-freighted within a week, and two 25-megawatt gas-turbines to be bought from General Electric Co.
The orders follow the lifting of U.S. sanctions against Burma last week, and both companies have expressed desire to expand their presence in the country.
The Burmese government contends that the power cuts were a result of damage to infrastructure essential to the national grid during skirmishes with Kachin ethnic rebels in the country’s border area with China.
Urgent repairs will be carried out on the power stations damaged in the fighting, state television said, adding that Rangoon, Mandalay, and Monywa will receive a total of 37 high-powered generators to boost supplies.
State media also sought to explain the power cuts to the public, saying Burma has only 18 hydropower stations, one coal-fired power plant, and 10 gas-fired power stations supplying 60 million people nationwide.
The combined capacity of about 1,340 megawatts during a recent drought has fallen far short of consumption levels reaching as much as 1,850 megawatts.
Protesters gathered for the second time in two days on Wednesday in Rangoon, following demonstrations which began on Sunday in Mandalay and spread to Monywa, 130 kilometers (80 miles) to the northwest, on Monday, before reaching the former capital Tuesday.
Activists spread word of the protests through Facebook.
Around 1,000 people also held a third day of protests in Mandalay, the country’s second-largest city. Authorities in Mandalay brought residents in for questioning on Tuesday, but later freed them.
Six-hour blackouts are commonplace in Rangoon, while Mandalay often sees cuts that last three times as long.
Similar public gatherings took place Wednesday in South Dagon, where about 100 people held lit candles and signs demanding the full restoration of electricity. And some 500 people held a candlelight vigil in Pegu, as about 1,000 police looked on.
The extremely rare protests represent a test for the nominally civilian government of reformist President Thein Sein, which took power in March last year after five decades of military rule.
Thein Sein approved a bill last year which allows for peaceful protests.
And while organizers of the power-cut protests did not seek to get approval from the authorities five days in advance of the gatherings as required under the new law, police have allowed them to continue. Punishment can carry a one-year sentence to jail.
Protesters have accused Burma’s former military government officials of selling off natural gas reserves to China and pocketing the profits, while some 75 percent of Burmese have no access to the country’s power grid.
Power consumption in Burma averages 104 kilowatts an hour per person—one of the lowest per-capita rates worldwide.
Opposition leader and Member of Parliament Aung San Suu Kyi had said Tuesday during the opening of an office for her National League for Democracy (NLD) party in East Dagon township that power shortages were a direct result of government mismanagement.
She called on the authorities to address the power outage issue as well as that of joblessness in Burma.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Win Naing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.