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Burma’s Spreading Protests Test Reformist Government

BANGKOK - Authorities in Burma have detained at least 10 people for supporting or taking part in the street protests against electricity cuts that began Sunday in Mandalay, the country's second-largest city.

Hundreds of protesters have marched every night, peacefully holding candles in a symbolic gesture against the recently announced cuts.

VOA’s Burmese Service confirmed most of those taken into custody were questioned for several hours and then released. They included local writers and a few members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy party.

Poet Okkar Kyaw was among those detained on suspicion of being an organizer, but later released.

He said police wanted to know about the candle-light protests, asking him what leadership role he played and if he knew the organizers. Police also asked him if they plan to hold another protest. He said he told the authorities they do not.

Burma’s reformist government crafted a law allowing demonstrations, but only if organizers get permission. It also allows for the arrest of protest organizers.

The law needs to be changed to put it in line with international standards, said Soe Aung, spokesman for the Forum for Democracy in Burma.

“If it is a peaceful protest and without disturbing the public, for example the transportation or the traffics, then there should not be any reason for authorities to make arrests or even without asking for permission,” he said.

The Mandalay demonstrators apparently organized somewhat spontaneously through the Internet, after authorities announced cutting electricity to only several hours a day.

Burma is rich in oil, gas, and hydropower, but sells much of it to neighbors Thailand and China leading to frequent power shortages. Of 60 million people, only one in four have access to electricity.

Human Rights Watch senior researcher on Burma David Matthieson said the protests are a big test of how the new government responds to the needs of ordinary people.

“That should be a wake up call to the government, to think, there has got to be a more equitable redistribution of this country’s wealth to the people that really deserve it, which is the people of Burma," Mathieson said. "So, hopefully, these demonstrations and what the protesters are actually saying sparks a more lively, open debate about the basic services within the country and the government’s responsibility to provide them to its people.”

Demonstrations are rare in Burma and were put down violently by the military in 1988 and 2007.

There are parallels between this week’s protests and the beginning of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, when authorities started arresting political dissenters, Matthieson said.

“A lot of them were actually arrested in August before the big demonstrations involving Buddhist monks. And, they were arrested for marching peacefully calling for better living standards, lower commodity prices, and access to electricity. And so, given recent history I think people should be concerned about the possible ramifications of this,” said Matthieson.

Burma’s state media issued a rare plea to the public to show understanding. The New Light of Myanmar newspaper reports plans are underway to build more power plants in cooperation with companies from the United States, Japan and Korea.