Protesters asking for 24-hour electricity in Mandalay. Photo courtesy of Citizen Journalists Myanmar.
Over the past few days, hundreds of Burmese have been holding candlelit protests in cities across the country to protest against chronic electricity shortages. These protests are Burma’s largest since the 2007 monk-led “Saffron Revolution,” which was brutally crushed by the then-military regime.
Under the military junta that ruled the country for decades, public gatherings of more than five people were illegal. Since Burma’s transition to a military-backed civilian government, however, dissent has become increasingly tolerated. Last year, the government approved a new law allowing for peaceful, authorised protests. Until now, unsure of how this would be applied in practice, Burmese citizens had only held small, tentative rallies; the candlelit movement against power blackouts is the law’s first major test.
Protests began on Sunday in the country’s second-largest city, Mandalay, and have since spread to the largest city, Rangoon (also known as Yangon), and many more small ones. So far, the police have let most demonstrations unfold without intervening, except in the central town of Pyi on Thursday, where they broke up a demonstration of several hundred people.
Protesters in Mandalay on Tuesday. Video courtesy of BurmaVJ.
In a rare move, Burmese authorities have attempted to placate protesters by explaining the causes of the electricity crisis and by promising swift action. On Wednesday, officials said that due to a recent drought, Burma’s hydro-electric plants have been pumping out less power than usual. In combination with coal and gas-fired power stations, these plants have been generating about 1,340 megawatts, while consumption has been as high as 1,850 megawatts. They also blamed ethnic Kachin rebels for bomb blasts at power plants in the north of the country that further reduced supplies.
The government has also announced it will quickly repair these plants as well as purchase generators and gas-turbines from American companies, following the suspension of US sanctions last week.
Many protesters have expressed anger over the fact that Burma exports the majority of its energy to foreign countries, notably China and Thailand, despite chronic shortages at home.
“The people demonstrating are not just political activists – I’ve seen young people, elderly people, all sorts of people. Electricity shortages affect everyone”
Htoo Tay Zar is a photographer and a designer. He lives in Rangoon. He is currently visiting friends in Mandalay, where the protests kicked off.
I’ve been amazed at the size of these demonstrations, and how different they are from the ones in 2007. In this new, more democratic era, the authorities only send the police out on the streets, not the military like they used to do under the military junta. The police are more familiar to citizens; we understand each other better. While they have detained some of the protest organisers for questioning, all have been quickly released.However, in Mandalay, where the protests began on Sunday, the police did manage to deter people from protesting for a fourth night on Wednesday. They were present in large numbers at all possible gathering points in the city, so only a dozen or so people dared to protest, compared to hundreds on the previous nights.“In Mandalay, people only get 4 or 5 hours of electricity per day”The people who have been demonstrating in the streets are not just political activists – I’ve seen young people, elderly people, all sorts of people. Electricity shortages affect everyone, except the very rich who can afford fuel for generators. Electricity shortages have always been a problem, but it has been particularly bad this spring. In Mandalay, people get about 4 or 5 hours of electricity per day; in Yangon, it’s only slightly better. The authorities announce schedules for electricity distribution, but often, even when we’re supposed to get electricity, it goes off.This makes it very hard to plan ahead. It has become difficult to recharge my phone, and I never know if I’m going to be able to use my fan at night or if I’ll be unable to sleep due to the heat. Students have trouble getting their studying done. Lots of people use candles in their homes in the evenings, but this is dangerous – it causes many fires. I hear fire truck sirens all the time these days.“I saw one man with a sign that said, ‘Electricity first; democracy second.’”But the biggest side effect of the electricity shortage is water shortages. Many people rely on motorized pumps to get water from the ground. And in this time of drought, water is essential, especially in rural areas. The government has promised they will take emergency measures, the first of which will be to distribute generators to keep pumps working.I think people will only calm down once they see concrete results. Still, these protests are peaceful. Protesters’ signs say simple things, like “People deserve electricity” and “Electricity is important for us.” I saw one man with a sign that said, “Electricity first; democracy second.” While I understand the sentiment – electricity is a basic need – to me, democracy brings changes in every sector, including infrastructure, and so it needs to come first.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Gaelle Faure.