Myanmar power cuts draw protest in main city

A small group of demonstrators carried candles and tied up traffic in Myanmar's largest city Tuesday evening as discontent grows over chronic power cuts in the country, which is easing toward democracy after decades of military rule.

The problem, which has exasperated Myanmar's citizens for more than a decade, has sparked the first serious street protests this year in the country's new atmosphere of reform and reconciliation. Two days of rallies in Mandalay this past weekend drew hundreds of people and marked the largest protests since the army crushed monk-led demonstrations in 2007.

Social and political activists have not yet mounted any serious large-scale protests against the government of military-backed but elected President Thein Sein, who has tried to reverse decades of repression under military rule.

While new laws allow more leeway for legal protests, the security forces remain under the control of the same officials who tolerated little dissent under the previous military regime, and constantly inveighed against disorder.

Tuesday's rally in Yangon to demand regular electricity supplies began with about a dozen people and grew to 50 or so demonstrators, who marched with candles in their hands.

"We have no electricity sometimes for two days. Even getting drinking water is absolutely difficult," said Cho Cho Myint, a protester from an eastern Yangon suburb. "We are staging a peaceful protest to demonstrate our unhappiness with the shortages in this country."

Despite the peaceful nature of the protest, truckloads of riot police circled the roundabout at Sule Pagoda, a downtown landmark near City Hall. As a few hundred spectators watched from a distance, police tried to encourage the protesters to stay near the pagoda and keep the street clear for traffic.

The government made an uncharacteristic appeal for understanding earlier Tuesday, with the Electric Power Ministry issuing a statement in all three state-run newspapers under the headline, "Plea to the Public."

It explained that rationing was being applied to cope with greater demand and decreased supply during the hot summer months. It also blamed ethnic Kachin rebels for blowing up several electricity pylons in northern Myanmar several days ago, reducing power supplies in several areas.

"The government has invited domestic and foreign companies to invest in Myanmar electric power production," the ministry's statement said, noting that offers were made to American company General Electric and several Japanese companies.

"Please understand that electricity rationing had to be introduced," the statement added, asking for "the people to cooperate by sparingly using electricity."

The ministry's statement was an indication of the government's concern about the growing protests but also an opportunity to blame the Kachin, who have continued fighting as the new reformist government seeks to reach cease-fires with ethnic rebel groups.

Myanmar has large supplies of natural gas, but an inadequate power supply infrastructure.

Until last year, the Southeast Asian country was led by an oppressive military junta that crushed any sign of dissent. Protests and government admissions of mismanagement remain uncommon.

Reforms by the new government have won international praise and last week prompted the United States to ease sanctions, including a ban on U.S. investment in Myanmar.