Myanmar police move against spreading power protests
Myanmar police broke up a protest against power cuts by several hundred people in the town of Pyi on Thursday and five members of Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party were taken in for questioning, a senior party official said.
Members of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party were also briefly detained for questioning in the city of Mandalay in the early hours, a second NLD official said.
Demonstrations have taken place in several towns this week, including the commercial capital, Yangon, as citizens test the limits of democratic changes in Myanmar, leaving the authorities struggling to respond.
Until now, the security forces have allowed the peaceful demonstrations to go ahead and the civilian government, which took over from a repressive junta in March last year, has promised emergency measures to increase the electricity supply.
"So far as I heard from our members in the region, there was a protest of about 400 people at least," NLD official Nyan Win said, referring to the area around Pyi, about 260 km (160 miles) northwest of Yangon.
"The police tried to disperse them and there was some rough manhandling and some people were injured. Five NLD members were picked up for questioning," he said.
Ba Shi, a member of the NLD in Pyi, said the five were being held at the town's prison and a crowd had assembled outside to demand their release.
Tint Swe, an NLD committee member in Mandalay, told Reuters that he and two other party members were picked up by special branch officers at around 5 a.m. (2230 GMT on Wednesday) and questioned about who was behind the protests.
They were treated well and taken home about five hours later, he said.
State television said on Wednesday six generators purchased from U.S. firm Caterpillar Inc would be air-freighted within a week and two 25-megawatt gas turbines would be bought from General Electric Co to tackle the power shortage.
Urgent repairs would be carried out on power stations damaged in fighting with ethnic Kachin rebels, it added.
For decades, military authorities crushed protests against their rule, which often began because of frustration over bread-and-butter issues. The biggest and bloodiest uprisings against military rule, in 1988 and 2007, were sparked by economic grievances including soaring prices.
"WAIT AND SEE"
This week's marches pose a problem for reformist President Thein Sein - himself a former junta general - who has freed hundreds of political prisoners, relaxed state censorship, started peace talks with ethnic rebels and held by-elections that put Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi into parliament.
But the political and economic reforms are likely to raise expectations that both the government and the opposition led by Suu Kyi might struggle to meet.
Heavy-handed tactics to end the protests would be seized upon by government critics sceptical about the reforms, while the authorities will worry the demonstrations could spread.
The disturbances come as Suu Kyi is planning her first foreign trip in 24 years with a visit to neighbouring Thailand next week for an economic conference.
Suu Kyi spent 15 years in detention under the junta, and refused to leave the country when she had the opportunity, afraid she would not be allowed back.
It was not clear if the protests over power cuts would fizzle or blow up into a broader show of dissatisfaction.
Thein Aung Myint, 39, one of the organisers of the Mandalay protest, said the power supply had improved there on Wednesday night and residents in central Yangon said the same.
But activist Ko Htin Kyaw, 49, said there had still been power outages in the Yangon suburbs and he reserved judgment on the government's promise of increased power supplies.
"We have to wait and see whether they are as good as their word. This is not the first time they've said that," he said.
Kyaw Soe Lin, 45, a former political prisoner who has also been involved in organising the protests, suggested his aims were broader.
"Personally I can't be satisfied with a boost in electricity supplies at the moment," he said.
He noted the government had blamed the power shortage in part on the attack by the Kachin rebels. That showed there was still strife in the country and the government needed to work towards sustainable peace.
The protesters accuse the former military government of enriching themselves at the public's expense by selling natural gas to neighbouring China while Myanmar, among Asia's poorest nations, faces frequent power outages.
Power consumption in Myanmar, where only 25 percent of the population has access to the national grid, is one of the lowest in the world, averaging 104 kilowatts an hour per person, near the same level as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nepal, according to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.