YANGON, Myanmar – Demonstrators protesting electricity outages in Myanmar clashed with police Thursday, and several were arrested. The spreading protests are a test of the tolerance of a reformist civilian government after decades of military rule.
Parliament member Win Myint said demonstrators in his constituency resisted when they thought police were going to arrest their leaders and the six people detained were released later. He represents Pyay, 260 kilometers (160 miles) northwest of Yangon.
"The police tried to take some leaders and people tried to stop them," said one witness in Pyay. "The police beat the protesters with rubber and bamboo sticks to disperse them. They beat them on their heads, backs and legs. But no one was seriously injured."
The witness asked not to be named so as not to attract the attention of the authorities.
Protests over chronic power outages began Sunday in the central city Mandalay and have spread to at least four other locations, challenging the new government of President Thein Sein, who has promised political reform.
The previous military regime, in which Thein Sein also served, sought to tightly restrict street protests, fearing they could evolve into a broader challenge to authority. In 2007, small-scale protests snowballed into a general revolt led by Buddhist monks that was quashed only through the use of armed force.
Myanmar has suffered from power shortages for more than a decade. It has plentiful natural gas supplies, but a poor power distribution infrastructure, which has lagged even more as the economy has grown.
About 100 people marched and held a candlelight vigil Wednesday and Thursday nights in downtown Yangon, about double the number of the first day, Tuesday. The number of onlookers increased as well, as dozens of police stood watch.
Protests in Pyay began on Monday with a small group of people and have grown to more than 1,000.
Win Myint, a member of the ruling pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), said nervous police sought to negotiate with the leaders on the fourth day of protests, but people misunderstood that they sought to arrest them. He said the situation turned chaotic and police ended up arresting six people.
However, the arrests angered the crowd, which gathered in front of Pyay Prison to demand the release of their comrades. Win Myint said two colleagues from his party negotiated with police, arranging for the six to be freed in exchange for the leaders agreeing to stop the protest. However, the crowd decided to continue their march and went to light candles in front of a statue of Myanmar's independence hero Gen. Aung San, a prominent town landmark.