Protesters Released as Blackout Marches Spread

By Lawi Weng 22 May 2012

Around 40 protest leaders have been released by Burma’s Special Branch after they were arrested on Tuesday morning in the wake of mass power blackout demonstrations which continue to spread across the country.

More than 1,000 people took to the streets of Burma’s second largest city to demand 24-hour electricity in a protest movement which has since spread across the region.

Nyi Pu Lay, a well known Burmese writer, was released by authorities after spending two hours at the Special Branch office.

“[The police] asked me who the main person was behind this protest,” he told The Irrawaddy. “They told me their chief minister from the Ministry of Electric Power wanted to meet and talk to the protest’s other main leaders.

“I told them no one was behind this protest,” he added.

While the government has recently permitted public demonstrations to take place, the local authorities must be given five days notice—which the weekend event did not provide—with a penalty of one year imprisonment for transgressors.

The demonstration has now spread to other parts of the country such as Dala Township, in Rangoon, Monywa, in Sagaing Division, and Prome, in Pegu Division. Burma’s state-run media reported on Tuesday that the country produces less power in the summer as there is reduced available water. Reports urged citizens to cooperate with the government in order to save energy.

Around 1,500 people held their second march in Mandalay on Monday with further demonstrations planned over the next few days. The protests are the country’s largest since the 2007 Saffron Revolution which was brutally crushed by the ruling junta.

“More people are getting involved now,” said Ko Ko Lay who participated in the event. “We protested at three locations yesterday and there were around 1,500 people involved.”

Campaigners gathered in front of the Sedona Hotel, where many foreigners stay, as well as the city’s main power station and the Chinese embassy—the latter to protest against the Beijing government buying power from Burma while domestic supplies remain lacking.

“We are waiting to hear from the government so they can come and talk to us,” said Ko Ko Lay. “They need to fulfill our basic needs as they are supposed to be in charge.”

Protestors held lit candles as they processed down Mandalay’s historic streets shouting, “We need 24 hours power supply.”

The city’s residents told The Irrawaddy that they urgently need water and power as otherwise it is difficult to go about their daily lives. Around 1,000 people were involved at the first day of protests in Mandalay on Sunday.

Some officials from Ministry of Electric Power-2 (MEP-2) came to Mandalay yesterday and held a press conference.

“We are not the authorities, we are a service department. We never store power to use it later,” said Aung Than Oo, the deputy minister of MEP-2, according to the Facebook page of Burmese journalist Aung Shin.

Aung Shin said that the press conference was told that a dozen-or-so generators have been brought up from Naypyidaw to supply water as a priority. The authorities also said that the government plans to solve power shortages, which occur every summer, but that the matter may have to wait until after next year.

Aung Shin reported that some of those at the meeting asked whether the Ministry of Electric Power-1 (MEP-1) had been asked to share some of its power supply, but no answer was given.

Myint Aung, the director of MEP-2, reportedly made light of the blackout issue by joking, “We need to hold more ceremonies for pray for more rain to fall.”

MEP-1 is the main power supplier in Burma and sell one unit of electricity for 20 kyat, while the MEP-2 sells the same amount for 35 kyat. MEP-1 is led by Zaw Min, the chief minister of electric power in Burma.

MEP-1 controls 19 power plants in all different parts of the country that generate electricity from water, but much of this is then sold abroad.

Mandalay currently requires 150 megawatts of electricity, but the power authorities are only able to supply 100 megawatts. The current rationing of power means that only six hours of power is available to different parts of the city at any one time—amounting to 65 megawatts.

Naypyidaw has asked Japan and South Korea for help building two power complexes just outside Rangoon to help rectify Burma’s electricity shortage. The Japanese-built coal plant will aim to produce 600 megawatts and take three-to-four years to build, while the gas-fuelled South Korean plant will generate 500 megawatts and be operational within a year.

Burma is notorious for power blackouts and hundreds of businesses, from backyard enterprises to major hotels and factories, must use their own generators fueled by expensive imported diesel.

Under the military junta that ruled until last year, much of the country’s electricity was sold to neighboring China and Thailand.