Power Protests Continue Despite Turbine Deal

By The Irrawaddy 29 May 2012

Week-long protests against electricity shortages continued across Rangoon on Monday evening despite state-run media reporting that three gas-powered turbines will soon arrive to address the problem.

The New Light of Myanmar reported that Japan is providing three 120-megawatt generators to alleviate Burma’s power shortfall, yet hundreds of people still took to the streets of the former capital to protest against the blackouts.

“The strength of the protest against electricity shortages in Rangoon has changed after six days at the Sule Pagoda,” Han Win Aung, one of the protest leaders, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday. “The protest has moved to different townships after a protest in the city was postponed on May 27. We have the same intention from the protest and still shout ‘give us 24-hour electricity.’”

Han Win Aung said that demonstrations have moved to North Okkalapa, South Okkalapa, Dawbon, Thaketa, Hlaing Tharyar, Shwepyitha and South Dagon townships of Burma’s economic hub. He added that there has been some progress with less power cuts reported recently but that the marches would carry on at least until Tuesday.

“The people protest peacefully and ask what they need,” said Han Win Aung. “The government should remain tolerant and show sympathy to the protesters and need to respect the desire of the people.”

A protester from Bassein (Pathein), Irrawaddy Division, told The Irrawaddy that demonstrators reached a deal with the local authorities on Sunday to postpone marches for ten days. He added that the situation has recently improved so they now have electricity from 5 pm until 11 am.

The blackout demonstrations started in Mandalay, Burma’s second largest city, on May 20 when people began heading out holding candles after dark. Similar marches then spread to Prome, Bago and Rangoon—with crowds of up to 3,000 seen around Sule Pagoda.

President Thein Sein’s recent program of democratic reforms included a bill allowing citizens to stage peaceful demonstrations—providing they give five days notice—although lingering draconian security laws still put protesters on shaky legal ground.

Burma has suffered from power shortages for more than a decade despite plentiful natural gas supplies. Much of the country’s fossil fuels are sold abroad with a poor power distribution infrastructure exacerbating the issue.

However, state-run media has put some of the blame for the latest electricity shortages on the Kachin Independence Army after the ethnic rebels apparently damaged fours electrical towers on the 230-KV Shweli-Mansan section of the national power grid, between Ruili and Mansan, in Shan State last weekend.

During the demonstration in Prome (Pyay) on May 24, police arrested six activists but they were subsequently bailed. However, the authorities tried to charge them under Peaceful Protest Law of Dec. 4, 2011.

The judge rejected the police’s attempt to file charges due to a lack of legal justification for the case, said one of the protest organizers, adding that demonstrators who were manhandled may instead file complaints against the officers involved.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi told the crowd at the opening ceremony of a National League for Democracy office in Rangoon’s East Dagon Township last Tuesday that Burma is not poor, but that the people are poor.

“I like it when I hear on the radio that people in Mandalay protested while holding candles,” she said. “They are standing up for what they need—which is electricity. We need to think deeply about why we do not get a regular supply of electricity. We need to know what the causes are.”

The new turbine deal was signed when Burmese Minister of Industry-2 Soe Thein met Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Yukio Edano and Minister of Foreign Affairs Koichiro Gemba at the 18th International Conference on the Future of Asia in Tokyo on May 24 and 25.

A dozen heavy-duty generators of 300 to 500 KVA have also reportedly been ordered from the United States and Singapore.