May 29, 2012

This Weekend’s News: Power Shortages Stir Demonstrations in Myanmar

Power shortages across Myanmar are contributing to small-scale demonstrations throughout the country, according to a report in The New York Times on Sunday. “Numerous small protests have arisen in Myanmar over persistent power shortages as the past year’s democratic reforms have led to rising expectations from a long-suppressed population,” the report said. “Demonstrations in the past 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.”

Despite Myanmar’s abundance of energy resources –particularly natural gas – the country suffers from major infrastructure challenges that could slow the country’s economic growth. “A poor power distribution infrastructure has lagged even more as the economy has grown,” according to The New York Times. Consequently, this poor infrastructure could constrain the country’s expected growth as the government continues to enact political reforms that encourage Western governments to ease economic sanctions and give rise to foreign direct investment in nascent industries, including in oil and natural gas production.

Moreover, political protests could potentially spook the government as it continues to gradually enact political forms. Although the demonstrations over power shortages are still small and rather peaceful – with the largest demonstrations including only between 200 and 300 protestors – the government is likely to keep a watchful eye as these and other political demonstrations develop over concerns that the country’s gradual political opening could embolden opposition groups and threaten the military establishment and long-time authoritarian leaders. “The most recent uprising, led by monks in 2007, began as small protests over fuel price increases,” The New York Times added, suggesting that there is a recent history of political demonstrations escalating beyond a point that the government finds acceptable. Although there is little to suggest that these protests will escalate and prompt a response from the government, the challenges over energy infrastructure are likely to be a defining feature of the political and economic landscape in Myanmar in the years ahead.