In Burma’s largest protest in years, as many as 1,000 people staged a candlelit demonstration in the northern city of Mandalay on Monday, protesting severe electricity shortages which the government has blamed on fighting in the Kachin border region.
Mandalay residents carrying candles gathered near the city’s power station from 7:00 p.m. on Monday for the second night of protests, demanding officials restore round-the-clock electricity after gradual power cuts over the past three months reduced the supply to as little as five hours a day.
Officials dispatched riot trucks to control the demonstration, but allowed it to continue until after 11:00 p.m.
Mandalay officials held an emergency press conference around 10:00 p.m. to say that high demand for electricity at the start of the summer and a lack of rainfall needed to generate hydropower from the country’s dams were at fault for the recent blackouts.
But residents demanded to know how much of the region’s electricity was being sold to neighboring China.
Three other cities have seen similar demonstrations over electricity in the past two days, including nearby Monywa as well as Pyay, in the southern part of the country, and Thone Kwa, near Rangoon.
But the protests in Mandalay are the country’s largest since the 2007 Saffron Revolution, when soaring gas prices prompted thousands to take to the streets in the capital, triggering a brutal crackdown.
Since then, Burma’s nominally civilian government that took over last year has implemented a series of reforms, including a law allowing peaceful protest.
After landmark elections held in November 2010, Mandalay's electricity supply was relatively stable, because candidates had promised to provide better service, residents said.
But in recent months, blackouts have become routine, they said.
On Sunday, state media blamed national power shortages on attacks by ethnic Kachin rebels on four towers that form part of the national power grid in northern Burma’s Shan state.
Bomb blasts by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) had destroyed the four towers, the official New Light of Myanmar newspaper said, amid fighting that has intensified since a 17-year peace agreement was shattered in June.
The bombing occurred just before a government delegation met with Kachin leaders on Monday in Thailand’s Chiang Rai for unofficial talks aimed at forging a ceasefire agreement.
"It was just a preliminary discussion in order to make future meetings possible,” Gen. Gwan Maw, the KIA’s deputy commander-in-chief, said of the meeting.
Neither side has commented on the details of the discussion, which is believed to be their fourth unofficial meeting.
At least 60,000 have been forced to flee their homes amid the fighting, with some living in internally displaced person (IDP) camps in Burma and others across the border in China.
Reported Zaw Moe Kyaw and Tin Aung Khine for RFA's Burmese service. Translated by Win Naing. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.