BANGKOK – Protests in Myanmar over persistent power shortages have provided a test of how the country's elected but military-backed government will respond to rising expectations sparked by the past year's democratic reforms.
Small demonstrations over the last week in Myanmar's two largest cities and several towns could be seen as an indicator of the new openness under President Thein Sein, who has overseen the country's emergence from decades of authoritarian rule and diplomatic isolation.
From another point of view, the peaceful protests — which have been limited to a few hundred people — serve as a reminder of the early stages of past unrest. Previous uprisings have started as small affairs sparked by complaints over the economy and then snowballed into large-scale challenges to authority.
In 2007, the former military regime used force to put down the so-called Saffron Revolution led by Buddhist monks. That rebellion began as small, localized protests over fuel price hikes.
"Protests like this in Myanmar always have the potential to escalate and lead to political unrest," said Trevor Wilson, a former Australian envoy to Myanmar who now teaches at Australian National University. "It is hard to predict how these protests might develop."
Thein Sein was prime minister of the previous repressive military government but shed his formal links with the army to run with its proxy political party in a 2010 general election. Those polls were boycotted by the party of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest at the time.
Last year, Thein Sein embarked on a reform program whose main objective was to win the easing of economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union. That goal has already been largely accomplished.
Also as a result of the reforms, the government won the cooperation of Suu Kyi, the once-implacable foe of army rule and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was freed after the 2010 elections. Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party even agreed to run for parliament in last month's by-elections, snaring 43 seats to play a small but historically significant legislative role.
Along with the revival of parliamentary politics there has been a new assertiveness in civil society, especially in lobbying on environmental issues. One campaign, opposing the Chinese-funded Myitsone hydropower dam on the Irrawaddy River, won an astonishing victory when the government announced the cancellation of the project.
Still, the potential for conflict in Myanmar — also known as Burma — lies in the space between the political reforms achieved so far and the shortfall in other fundamental changes, particularly in the economy.
Suu Kyi has endorsed the protests, which have seen demonstrators holding candlelight vigils and marching in public streets.
Speaking Tuesday at the opening of a branch office for her party, Suu Kyi said "the country suffers from power shortages because of mismanagement. I believe that the system has to be changed to get electricity or to get water or to get jobs."
The challengers to the government are the same activists who used to struggle against military rule, but are now emboldened by the new democratic opening.
Their antagonist is the same military that smashed their dreams five years ago. Though he came to power through election, Thein Sein heads a government that serves at the sufferance of the military, which together with its civilian allies controls parliament and security affairs.
The immediate prospects for strife are hard to calculate. The protests have been peaceful and relatively unassertive so far, with the crowd in Yangon — Myanmar's biggest city — topping out at about 300 on Friday night.
The peaceful demonstrations continued for a fifth night Saturday in Yangon, though the number of protesters dropped to about 200. Truckloads of riot police looked on but did nothing.
Out of habit, deliberation or misunderstanding, the authorities are clearly nervous. In the central city of Mandalay, Special Branch political police held several protesters briefly for questioning.
On Thursday in the central town of Pyay, police pressure on demonstrators led to a brawl and six arrests. The angered comrades of those detained gathered outside the local prison until the detainees were released, then carried on protesting.
"Police violence encountered during the protests against power cuts shows just how Burma continues to grossly neglect and violate the basic rights to human dignity and freedom of expression," said the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a group that feels reforms have fallen way short of what is desirable. "It is clear that peaceful dissent is still not tolerated."
Others are not so pessimistic.
"The timing of these protests is interesting because the new laws about peaceful assembly are in place and the new government's attitude is different from that of its predecessors," said Australian National University's Wilson. "One would expect both sides to be more reasonable and tolerant now, and early signs are that this seems to be the case."
Thein Sein's reforms included the passage of a bill allowing citizens to stage peaceful demonstrations — although still-existing security laws continue to put protesters at legal risk.
Myanmar has suffered from power shortages for more than a decade. It has plentiful natural gas supplies, but a poor power distribution infrastructure that has lagged even more as the economy has grown.
Sean Turnell, an economist at Australia's Macquarie University, said he believes what is significant about the current protest movement is "how it highlights the way that economic reform, and the changes that need to be made to make life easier here for the great bulk of people, are seriously lagging."
Up to now, much of Myanmar's natural gas has been earmarked for neighboring Thailand and China, he noted.
"For the previous regime, domestic considerations and the lives of the citizenry (as well as domestic business) took a back seat to the desire to secure foreign exchange," Turnell said. "The current government, I think, is hopeful of doing something better, but at the moment the legacy of the past is weighing on them."
Associated Press writer Aye Aye Win in Yangon, Myanmar, contributed to this report.