Small demonstrations over persistent power shortages in the past week in Myanmar could be indicating the new openness under Burmese 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 — limited to a few hundred people — serve as a reminder of the early stages of past unrest. Previous uprisings also started small, 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 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. “It is hard to predict how these protests might develop.”
Last year, Thein Sein embarked on a reform program whose main objective was to win the easing of economic sanctions imposed by the US and the EU. That goal has already been largely accomplished.
The reforms have also won the cooperation of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the once-implacable foe of army rule and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was freed after the 2010 elections. Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party even ran 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 in Myanmar, 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 said they would cancel the project.
Still, the potential for conflict in Myanmar lies in the space between the political reforms achieved so far and the shortfall in other fundamental changes, particularly in the economy.
Aung San Suu Kyi has endorsed the protests, speaking on Tuesday at the opening of a branch office for her party, she 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 immediate prospects for strife are hard to calculate. The protests have been peaceful and relatively unassertive so far, but out of habit, deliberation or misunderstanding, the authorities are clearly nervous.
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.
“Police violence encountered during the protests against power cuts shows just how Myanmar continues to grossly neglect and violate the basic rights to human dignity and freedom of expression,” the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said.
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,” Wilson said. “One would expect both sides to be more reasonable and tolerant now, and early signs are that this seems to be the case.”