Protests against chronic power shortages in Myanmar spread to Yangon late on Tuesday following rallies in the city of Mandalay, which saw several opposition party members briefly held by police.
People are testing the boundaries of their freedom under the quasi-civilian government that took power last year after decades of outright military rule.
Two short but noisy demonstrations involving about 150 people took place in front of Sule Pagoda in the heart of Yangon, the focus of uprisings in 1988 and 2007 that were brutally crushed by the military.
Activists and former political prisoners at the second — and larger — of the protests shouted “give us 24-hour electricity” for about 10 minutes before the crowd dispersed at the request of the police.
Myanmar suffers crippling power cuts, with six-hour blackouts commonplace in Yangon and outages three times as long in Mandalay, where about 1,500 people on Monday protested as news of the rallies spread on Facebook.
“We can’t have a good quality of life without electricity, which is the basis for development of the country,” 21-year-old protester Shew Yee said in Yangon.
In Mandalay, about 400 protesters defied a heavy police presence to hold a third straight night of rallies after more than a thousand residents came out on Sunday and Monday, in the nation’s biggest protests since the monk-led 2007 uprising.
Heavy security at the initial rally sites prompted the protest to move to outside a monastery, where monks joined the clamor for an end to the long, rolling blackouts.
Earlier, about 10 members of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party were taken for questioning, NLD Member of Parliament from Mandalay Ohn Kyaing said.
“The authorities treated them well and released them afterwards,” he said.
Protests are rare in Myanmar although under a new law, one of a series of reformist moves by Burmese President Thein Sein’s government since the end of army rule, authorized protests have been permitted.
However, the demonstrators in Mandalay did not have approval when they began their rally over the weekend.
Residents accuse the government of failing to provide electricity to its citizens, while selling power to neighboring China.
Only 13 percent of Myanmar’s population has access to electricity, according to 2009 figures from the World Bank.
In a rare move to placate public opinion, state mouthpiece the New Light of Myanmar ran an article Tuesday signed by the Ministry of Electric Power explaining that high summer energy consumption had led to the shortages.
“The people are requested to understand the current situation in which electricity is being alternately supplied to the public,” the English-language newspaper said, urging people to conserve power.
The report did not directly refer to the protests.
The newspaper said four electricity pylons in Shan state were destroyed by ethnic rebels on Saturday, worsening the supply shortages.