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Myanmar protests put government changes to the test

BANGKOK - Protests in Myanmar over persistent power shortages have provided a test of how the country’s elected but military-backed government will respond to rising expectations sparked by the past year’s democratic changes.

Small demonstrations over the last week in Myanmar’s two largest cities and several towns could be seen as an indicator of the new openness under President Thein Sein, who has overseen the country’s emergence from decades of authoritarian rule and diplomatic isolation.

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From another point of view, the peaceful protests, which have been limited to a few hundred people, serve as a reminder of the early stages of past unrest. Previous uprisings have started small and snowballed into large-scale challenges to authority.

In 2007, the former military regime used force to put down the so-called Saffron Revolution led by Buddhist monks. That rebellion began as localized protests over fuel price increases.

“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 who now teaches at Australian National University.

Thein Sein was prime minister of the previous repressive military government but shed his formal links with the army to run with its proxy political party in a 2010 general election. Those polls were boycotted by the party of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was under house arrest at the time.

Last year, Thein Sein embarked on a reform program with the goal of winning an easing of economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union. That goal has largely been accomplished.

As a result of the changes, the government won the cooperation of Suu Kyi, once an implacable foe of army rule. Suu Kyi, who was freed after the 2010 elections, and her National League for Democracy party even agreed to run for Parliament in last month’s by-elections, winning 43 seats to play a small but historically significant legislative role.

Along with the revival of parliamentary politics, 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 announced the cancellation of the project.

Still, the potential for conflict in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, lies in the space between the political changes achieved so far and the shortfall in other fundamental changes, particularly in the economy.

Suu Kyi has endorsed the protests, which have seen demonstrators holding candlelight vigils and marching in the streets.

Speaking last week at the opening of a branch office for her party, Suu Kyi 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 challengers to the government are the same activists who used to struggle against military rule, but are now emboldened by the new democratic opening.

Their antagonist is the same military that smashed their dreams five years ago. Though he came to power through election, Thein Sein heads a government that serves at the sufferance of the military.

The immediate prospects for strife are hard to calculate. The protests have been peaceful and relatively unassertive so far, with the crowd in Yangon - Myanmar’s biggest city and formerly known as Rangoon - topping out at about 300 on Friday night.

The peaceful demonstrations continued for a fifth night Saturday in Yangon, though the number of protesters dropped to about 200.

The authorities are clearly nervous. In the central city of Mandalay, Special Branch political police held several protesters briefly for questioning.

On Thursday in the central town of Pyay, police pressure on demonstrators led to a brawl and six arrests.

Some rights advocates said the violence was a sign that freedom of speech and assembly are still not tolerated in Myanmar, but Wilson said the new leaders apear to have a more open attitude than their predecessors.

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