News about the protests that spread through several Burma towns last week over power shortages should be welcomed as a positive development in the country’s bid to achieve a full democratic transition.
The series of peaceful protests started in Mandalay, where hundreds of residents gathered in front of a government electricity agency to condemn the power blackouts in the city. There, locals lighted candles in the evening and displayed posters even without being pre-approved by the censors. It was a rare spontaneous gathering of consumers who are all furious over the failure of authorities to adequately explain why electricity is available for only six hours in a day.
After Mandalay, residents of Monywa, Pyi, Bago, and the Thonse townships who are also suffering from the blackouts conducted street protests and candle lighting activities over the past week. Even Facebook users changed their profile pictures to an image of candles against a dark background to show support for the protests.
The government blamed a bomb blast that destroyed a transmission tower connected to a hydropower plant for the electricity shortage, which crippled several cities in the country. But citizens aren’t satisfied with this excuse. Indeed, many people have questioned instead the continued sale of Burma’s natural gas supply and other energy resources to neighboring China despite the power crisis in the country. The fact that some of the protests have also been organized in front of the Chinese embassy reflects the disapproval of many citizens over the sales to China. It didn’t help that the minister for the Ministry of Electric Power publicly defended the energy trade with China, which only inflamed opinion. The minister’s resignation is now being demanded by protesters for his remarks.
Unsurprisingly, the initial response of the police was to harass and arrest some protesters. But surprisingly, the detained civilians were immediately released. Maybe the junta-backed government had already sensed the popular indignation at the grassroots level and is worried that a violent crackdown on the peaceful assemblies could trigger bigger protests in the future which it wouldn’t be able to handle. The ruling coalition, which experienced a humiliating landslide defeat in the recent local elections, stands to lose even more political clout if the opposition or the pro-democracy movement is able to harness the emerging community-based people power in the blackout-hit towns of Burma.
It’s not to the junta’s credit that protests are allowed to prosper in Burma. The police initially tried to suppress and limit the protests in a single town, but they failed. Perhaps inspired by the recent electoral victory of the opposition, it seems Burmese citizens are more aggressive and bolder in expressing their views today. Young people are no longer afraid to call for the dismissal of a government minister.
Much has been said of the so-called reforms implemented by the Burmese government, which included the release of political prisoners and the holding of open elections. These reforms were quickly accepted by several global leaders, which could pave the way for the entry of more aid and investment into Burma. But these suspect junta-driven reforms can be easily reversed, making it even more necessary to look for sustainable democracy initiatives from below. The string of community protests that erupted last week is a fine example of a people-driven reform movement that has the potential to guide Burma’s transition to democracy.