Power cuts spark Myanmar's biggest protest in five years

Reuters News
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Posted: May 24, 2012 1:45 PM
Power cuts spark Myanmar's biggest protest in five years

YANGON (Reuters) - Hundreds rallied for a second day in one of Myanmar's biggest cities on Monday to protest against chronic power outages, in the largest demonstrations since the army crushed a monk-led uprising nearly five years ago.

Several hundred marched peacefully on Monday in Mandalay, 380 km (236 miles) north of the commercial capital Yangon, witnesses told Reuters, a day after about 1,000 had gathered to protest against constant power cuts.

"Two similar marches were taking place at two different places about 8 p.m," one witness, Ko Tun Myint, a boutique owner, told Reuters by telephone.

Describing Sunday's protest, he said demonstrators had marched in downtown Mandalay holding candles while others carried placards demanding a more regular electricity supply.

Protests are rare in Myanmar, where dissent was brutally suppressed during 49 years of military rule, which ended last March when a reformist, quasi-civilian government took office.

Demonstrations have since been legalized, although rights groups say the laws are accompanied by tight restrictions, such as the requirement to notify the authorities several days in advance of a rally.

Another witness in Monywa, northeast of Mandalay, told Reuters a similar march over power shortages was also taking place there. The details could not be immediately confirmed.

At its peak, the protest was the biggest since September 2007, when monks marched against military rule after troops had crushed protests sparked by sharp rises in fuel and cooking gas prices. At least 30 people were killed and hundreds were arrested and beaten.

Despite producing hydroelectric power, much of Myanmar's electricity output is exported to energy-hungry China in deals that have irked many Burmese. Chinese firms are expected to build and run 33 of the 45 planned hydropower plants in Myanmar.

About 75 percent of Myanmar's 60 million people are without regular electricity, according to the Asian Development Bank. Power cuts are a daily occurrence even in the biggest city Yangon.

The issue is just one of many facing Myanmar and foreign firms looking to invest in the country, which has huge resource potential but is constrained by rudimentary transport, electricity and telecommunications infrastructure.

Ko Tun Myint said the regional-level minister of electrical power had held a news conference in Mandalay on Sunday to explain the power shortages and assure residents the supply would be increased.

(Reporting by Aung Hla Tun; Editing by Martin Petty)