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Myanmar Deals with the Price of Openness

For those watching Myanmar’s progress on internal reforms, as well as the ruling generals’ sincerity about them, a protest over electricity shortages is an interesting test case.

On Tuesday evening, several hundred people in the commercial capital Yangon marched at Sule Pagoda, the focal point of demonstrations in 2007 and 1988 that were crushed by the military which ruled for nearly half a century until last year.

About 1,000 people protested for a third straight evening in northern Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, the biggest demonstrations since a 2007 monk-led uprising in which dozens were killed and hundreds arrested…

“These protests are both a sign of dissatisfaction about public services and how the opening of democratic space is making interest groups more active than before.” [said Aung Thu Nyein, a Myanmar economist who moved to Thailand after taking part in demonstrations two decades ago.]

But the demonstrations have gone smoothly with no arrests, and no unrest. In Yangon, police watched as protesters stuck candles in front of a gold Buddhist shrine, chanting prayers for electricity, but they did nothing to stop them…

Police briefly detained a few protestors, asking them who organized the rallies. No one, was the reply, we just want electricity. The protestors were released.

The government even went so far as to announce why there was no power on state-controlled television channels. A bomb blast blamed on Kachin rebels had taken one power station offline. A widespread drought was also causing problems. Plans are under way to collaborate on new power plants with American companies, which were recently allowed to invest in Myanmar after sanctions were partly lifted last week.

That the protestors are allowed to voice their concerns peacefully with minimal interference from police, and that the government publicly sought to allay their concerns, says something important about Myanmar’s progress on reforms. Previous protests have been put down brutally, with no excuses. Not this time. That’s a good sign for the future.

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  • Luke Lea

    I take it Myanmar isn’t a Leninist state like China?

  • Kris

    “protesters stuck candles in front of a gold Buddhist shrine, chanting prayers for electricity”

    Dare I suggest it might be more useful to build a hydroelectric dam, say on the Irawaddy River?

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