By GRANT PECK, Associated Press
BANGKOK (AP) — Protests this past week in Myanmar over persistent power shortages have provided a test of how the country's elected but military-backed government will respond to rising expectations sparked by democratic reforms.
Small demonstrations in Myanmar's two largest cities and several towns could be seen as an indicator of the new openness under President Thein Sein, who has overseen the country's emergence from decades of authoritarian rule and diplomatic isolation.
From another point of view, the protests, which have been peaceful and limited in size and scope, serve as a reminder of the early stages of past unrest — small affairs sparked by complaints over the economy that snowballed into large-scale challenges to authority.
In 2007, the former military regime used force to put down the so-called Saffron Revolution led by Buddhist monks. That rebellion began as small, localized protests over fuel price hikes.
"Protests like this in Myanmar always have the potential to escalate and lead to political unrest," said Trevor Wilson, a former Australian envoy to Myanmar who now teaches at Australian National University. "It is hard to predict how these protests might develop."
Thein Sein was prime minister of the military government, but shed his formal links with the army to run with its proxy political party in a 2010 general election that was boycotted by the party of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Last year, Thein Sein embarked on a reform program whose main objective was to win the easing of economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union against the previous repressive military regime. That goal has already been largely accomplished.
Also as a result of the reforms, the government won the cooperation of Suu Kyi, the once-implacable foe of army rule. Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party even agreed to run for parliament in by-elections, snaring 43 seats in last month's polls to play a small but historically significant legislative role.
Along with the revival of parliamentary politics in Myanmar there has been a new assertiveness in civil society, especially in lobbying on environmental issues. One campaign, opposing the Chinese-funded Myitsone hydropower dam on the Irrawaddy River, won an astonishing victory when the government announced the cancellation of the project.
Still, the potential for conflict in Myanmar — also known as Burma — lies in the space between the political reforms achieved so far and the shortfall in other fundamental changes, particularly in the economy.
Speaking Tuesday at the opening of a branch office for her party, Suu Kyi said "the country suffers from power shortages because of mismanagement. I believe that the system has to be changed to get electricity or to get water or to get jobs."
The challengers to the government are the same activists who used to struggle against military rule, but are now emboldened by the new democratic opening.
Their antagonist is the same military that smashed their dreams five years ago. Though he came to power through election, Thein Sein heads a government that serves at the sufferance of the military, which together with its civilian allies controls parliament and security affairs.
The immediate prospects for strife are hard to calculate. The protests have been peaceful and relatively unassertive so far, with the crowd in Yangon — Myanmar's biggest city — topping out at about 300 on Friday night.
But out of habit, deliberation or misunderstanding, the authorities are clearly nervous. In the central city of Mandalay, Special Branch political police held several protesters briefly for questioning.
On Thursday in the central town of Pyay, police pressure on demonstrators led to a brawl and six arrests. The angered comrades of those detained gathered outside the local prison until the detainees were released, then carried on protesting.
"Police violence encountered during the protests against power cuts shows just how Burma continues to grossly neglect and violate the basic rights to human dignity and freedom of expression," said the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a group that feels reforms have fallen way short of what is desirable. "It is clear that peaceful dissent is still not tolerated."
Others are not so pessimistically inclined.
"The timing of these protests is interesting because the new laws about peaceful assembly are in place and the new government's attitude is different from that of its predecessors," said Australian National University's Wilson. "One would expect both sides to be more reasonable and tolerant now, and early signs are that this seems to be the case."
Thein Sein's reforms included the passage of a bill allowing citizens to stage peaceful demonstrations — although still-existing security laws continue to put protesters at legal risk.
Myanmar has suffered from power shortages for more than a decade. It has plentiful natural gas supplies, but a poor power distribution infrastructure that has lagged even more as the economy has grown.
Sean Turnell, an economist at Australia's Macquarie University, said he believes what is significant about the current protest movement is "how it highlights the way that economic reform, and the changes that need to be made to make life easier here for the great bulk of people, are seriously lagging."
Up to now, much of Myanmar's natural gas has been earmarked for neighboring Thailand and China, he noted.
"For the previous regime, domestic considerations and the lives of the citizenry (as well as domestic business) took a back seat to the desire to secure foreign exchange," Turnell said. "The current government, I think, is hopeful of doing something better, but at the moment the legacy of the past is weighing on them."
Suu Kyi has endorsed the protests, which have seen demonstrators holding candlelight vigils and marching in public streets.
"However, according to law, you have to ask permission to march in procession," she said. "If people have to get permission to march, everyone should express their feelings by standing in front of their houses with candles in their hands, so that no one can object to it."
Speaking to a large crowd Friday evening as she opened a party branch office in western Yangon, she said a government should be accountable to the people and should apologize if it cannot fulfill their wishes.
At the national level, Myanmar's government has come close to doing just that, retreating into a defensive posture with various explanations in the state-run press seeking to explain the power shortages and spelling out plans to alleviate them. The plea for understanding contrasts sharply with the tone-deaf attitude usually taken by the previous military government.
"The new Myanmar government is likely to be more concerned about the welfare of its citizens, and more disposed to remedy the source of any problem like power shortages," Wilson said. "It might even reverse previous government policies."
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