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. The first was triggered by a confiscatory currency reform along with police brutality against student protesters, the second by a hike in fuel prices in combination with police attacks on monks. Now Burma appears to be facing a similar situation once again.
For days people in cities around the country have been publicly protesting chronic power shortages. The authorities tolerated the demonstrations at first. Then, on Thursday, police in the town of Prome (Pyay), 160 miles northwest of Rangoon, beat up hundreds of protesters, most of them holding candles to symbolize the lack of electricity. Several protestors 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.
The protests began in Mandalay, the country's second largest city, on May 20. Hundreds of local residents held a candlelight vigil and marched peacefully through the streets, calling for a 24-hour supply of electricity. (In recent months, power has been available in Mandalay only for a few hours each day.) In the days that followed, the protests spread to Rangoon and other cities. Local media reported some rough encounters with the police and the temporary arrest of some protest leaders. The marchers held posters and banners. One of the slogans was, "We want the same 24-hour electricity that Naypyidaw has." (Naypyidaw, the capital built by the military junta a few years ago, does not have to contend with the power cuts that plague other parts of the country.) Another poster read, "Our homeland is dark while next-door neighbor China is lit up with electricity generated from our natural resources." Even though the authorities predictably suspect the opposition of orchestrating the protests (judging by the questions police asked of detained protestors), 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.
Meanwhile, President Thein Sein seems to realize the danger of his government's failure to deliver basic public services. In a speech to his cabinet earlier this month, he said, "Our government must make a drastic improvement for the people's needs including residential housing, water, power, transportation and jobs." The nominally civilian government has been uncharacteristically responsive in its reaction to the protests. The authorities have tried to blame the power outages on the recent drought, which has reduced hydropower, and ethnic Kachin rebels, who have bombed power plants in the north of the country. The government has promised that 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 suspension of U.S. sanctions last week.
Meanwhile, thousands of workers in industrial zones on the outskirts of Rangoon have been staging strikes against various foreign factories, calling for wage hikes.
What these protests show is that the government still hasn't gained much legitimacy at home despite the acceptance its policies have earned it overseas. This is the reason why the government has to be careful in managing these protests. On Thursday the head of the Association of South East Asia Nations warned the Burmese authorities onjust this point.
At the same time, the protest organizers should remain sensitive to the fact that it's precisely the recent political opening, no matter how flawed and limited it might be, that is enabling them to express their grievances. The Burmese state has plenty of capacity to suppress the protests if it so chooses, and the protests won't bear fruit unless political liberalization continues. Still, that process of liberalization remains far too fragile. The Burmese security forces, whose track record of killing unarmed civilians remains fresh in everyone's mind, presumably do not have unlimited tolerance.
Right now, the protests are taking place in a virtual vacuum. 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. In reality, protests that push for radical demands without viable leaders or feasible political alternatives are likely to achieve little other than strengthening the hand of the hardliners within the regime.
Needless to say, there is no easy solution to the political and socio-economic problems that have piled up over decades of misrule. But it's clear that the government has to come up with a way to provide basic public goods if it doesn't want to derail the nascent reform process.
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