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Protests Demanding Increased Power Supply Illustrates Burma’s Unpreparedness for Influx of Foreign Investment

By Burma Partnership  •  May 28, 2012

Last week saw various inspiring actions bravely undertaken by the people against injustice and the government’s irresponsibility in fulfilling their daily needs such as electricity. There were actions against land confiscations, low wages, violations of labor rights, and, largest of all, against the significant shortage of power in various areas across Burma.

During the past few weeks there have been worker strikes in as many as 20 different factories. These include the 25 people on hunger strike that continued into its second day on Saturday at Yangon Crown Steel factory in Hmawbi, Yangon Division, where almost 400 workers have been on strike since May 20. Despite the number of worker strikes, only a few have had successful negotiations with factory owners. Many have suggested that this is due to the lack of a government policy outlining a minimum wage and laws that protect the rights of workers. This is a reminder again of how the government is unprepared to accommodate foreign investment and manage the type of development it will bring.

Farmers are at high risk of being victims of land confiscations as more companies move into the country. There have been many cases of farmers taking steps against such abuses, demanding fair compensation from perpetrators. These are among the major cases Burma Partnership has compiled in the new People’s Voices feature on our website.

Among all the actions taken by the people, the largest have been the peaceful demonstrations that started in Mandalay on 20 May and grew to the biggest protests in the five years since the Saffron Revolution. More than 1,000 people in Mandalay took to the streets where they staged a candle-lit protest against power shortages and demanded 24-hour electricity. More people joined in the following days. The protests spread to other areas of Burma, such as Monywa, Rangoon, and Pyay despite the authorities denying permission to protest, claiming that detailed rules and procedures for the Peaceful Protest Law are yet to be issued and therefore protestors are subject to arrests. The protests were supported and joined by artists and activists like 88 Generation Students leaders. As she addressed the crowd at the opening of NLD branch office in East Dagon Township in Rangoon, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said she was “pleased with the people holding non-violent protests to express their will” and called on government officials “to listen to the people and fulfill their desires.”

Instead of fulfilling the desires of the people, the government unsurprisingly began detaining protestors they believed to be leaders of the protests. As many as 40 protesters were detained for questions in Mandalay on the second day of the protests and five NLD members were briefly detained during the protest in the Town of Pyay, Pegu Division. Moreover, the government’s lack of understanding was exemplified in Presidential advisor Ko Ko Hlaing’s comment in a press conference, in which he said, “Switch off the light and light up your candles at home and everything will be fine,” fuelling anger among protesters.

In the state-run New Light of Myanmar, the government attempted to explain that the reduction in the power supply was unavoidable due to the shortage of rain that consequently led to the reduced capacity of hydropower dams. They also blamed a bomb attack that targeted the electric towers in Kachin State claiming, as they have repeatedly in the past, that the Kachin Independence Army was responsible. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said that the reasons the government gave for power shortages were not good enough. While the protesters raised concerns about the amount of electricity being sold to China, Daw Suu stressed that Burma has enough natural resources to produce sufficient electricity and that it is the system that has cursed the people of a rich country to be poor.

The latest push of investors has left people wondering what the logic is behind the huge investments coming to Burma when there is no steady supply of electricity. Thailand’s recent approval of 203 projects worth over 30 billion baht to support the development of the Tavoy Deep Sea Port is a recent example. Others, such as Japan, have begun talks to develop an investment treaty in preparation for the imminent influx of business. With the government’s lack of preparation and capacity, how much the people of Burma will benefit from these investments will depend only on how ethical the investors are.

With the rush of companies into Burma, the international community has increasingly failed to address the issues of political prisoners and the need for legal reform, the ongoing armed conflict in ethnic areas and the suffering in particular of the Kachin people, and even the rightful desire of the people for such a basic need as electricity. These persistent problems prove that the changes the international community has been praising have yet to improve the daily life of the people. Rather than forging ahead with business at the expense of the people, the international community has a crucial role to play in ensuring that the government undertake legal and policy reforms in order to prepare for sustainable development that will have lasting benefits for all the people of Burma.

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