In Burma, a Return to the Old Ways of the Streets
If history is any guide, it’s the bread-and-butter issues that tend to make Burmese people take to the streets.
Then, when the authorities use force against these initial protests instead of peacefully managing popular demands, popular outrage mushrooms into a full-scale uprising. That’s what happened with the pro-democracy protests in 1988 and the Buddhist monk-led “Saffron Revolution” in 2007. Now Burma appears to face a similar situation again.
For days, people in cities around the country have publicly protested against chronic power shortages. The authorities tolerated the demonstrations at first. Then, last week, police in the town of Prome, 257 kilometers northwest of Rangoon, beat up hundreds of protesters, most of them holding candles to symbolize the lack of electricity. Several protesters were detained and subsequently released after intervention by local parliamentarians. Whether this crackdown was an isolated incident or a sign of growing impatience among the country’s security forces remains to be seen.
Even though the authorities predictably suspect the opposition of orchestrating the protests, they actually seem to be drawing on spontaneous grassroots outrage. One protest poster that read “Electricity First, Democracy Later On” even drew criticism from pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. She blames the current political system for the various hardships, including power shortages, suffered by the people.
President Thein Sein seems to realize the danger of his government’s failure to deliver basic public services. The nominally civilian government has been uncharacteristically responsive in its reaction to the protests. The government has promised the damaged plants will be quickly repaired, even announcing the purchase of six generators and two gas turbines from American companies; a move made possible after the recent suspension of US sanctions.
The Burmese security forces, whose track record of killing unarmed civilians remains fresh in everyone’s mind, presumably do not have unlimited tolerance. The big question is whether the demonstrators’ demands can be solved within the existing system or end up undermining it, perhaps even through regime change.
Min Zin is an exiled Burmese journalist who contributes to Foreign Policy.