YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar's government announced emergency measures on Wednesday to boost electricity supplies following protests over chronic power outages that are testing the nascent democracy.
Six generators purchased from U.S.-based Caterpillar Inc, the world's largest maker of construction machinery, will be air-freighted within a week, and two 25-megawatt gas-turbines would be bought from General Electric Co, the largest U.S. conglomerate, state television said.
Those steps follow the suspension of U.S. sanctions last week, illustrating rapid change in the former Burma following the end of five decades of oppressive military rule last year.
Urgent repairs will also be carried out on power stations damaged in fighting with ethnic Kachin rebels, state television said. In three cities that have seen protests - Yangon, Mandalay and Pyi - the government will deploy 37 high-powered generators to boost supplies, it added.
During its years of oppressive military rule, Myanmar seldom if ever bowed to public opinion. While it is unclear if this announcement will satisfy protesters who gathered on Wednesday for a second night in Yangon, the country's largest city, it could relieve mounting pressure on the one-year-old government.
"We believe this is not the old regime, and that's why we are expressing our voice," Han Win Aung, a protest organiser, said to cheers at the entrance of Yangon's Sule Pagoda before the urgent power-generation measures were announced.
Holding candles and chanting, about 100 protesters marched inside the gilded pagoda, urging authorities to address their long-festering grievances over power shortages in a test of political freedom in the new democracy.
"Power supplies are always going down, and that's why we are marching. This is very important for the entire country," said Po Lay, a 25-year-old protester in the pagoda, a focal point of demonstrations in 2007 and 1988 that were crushed by the former military junta.
A nine-year-old girl held a placard that said power often went off in her school. Hundreds of onlookers watched at the curious site of a protest held without police intervention, many expressing support for the protesters.
"I've been facing power outages for the past 10 years. I hope they will be able to make even small changes," said Hla Htay, a 51-year-old man watching inside the pagoda as protesters chanted prayers for electricity.
"ALMOST NOTHING HERE"
The demonstrations are the biggest since a 2007 monk-led uprising in which dozens were killed and hundreds arrested.
The protesters accused the former military government of enriching themselves at the public's expense by selling natural gas to neighbouring China while Myanmar, among Asia's poorest nations, faces frequent power outages.
In Yangon, one protester held a sigh that read, "There is so much electricity on the other side in China. There's almost nothing here."
Power consumption in Myanmar, where only 25 percent of the population has access to the national grid, is one of the lowest in the world, averaging 104 kilowatts an hour per person, near the same level as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nepal, according to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.
Protesters also gathered for a fourth straight evening in northern Mandalay, the second-largest city, but the number was smaller than in previous nights, said organisers.
The protests pose a difficult test for reformist President Thein Sein who has freed hundreds of political prisoners, relaxed state censorship, started peace talks with ethnic minority rebel groups and held historic by-elections that catapulted Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party into a semi-civilian parliament.
Bread-and-butter issues have been known to turn violent in Myanmar. The biggest and bloodiest uprisings against military rule, in 1988 and 2007, were sparked by discontent over soaring inflation and fuel prices.
Myanmar has 18 hydro-power stations, one coal-fired power plant and 10 gas-fired power stations supplying the country of 60 million people, state media says. Those plants have been generating about 1,340 megawatts during a recent drought — while power demand has been as high as 1,850 megawatts.
The six power generators purchased from Caterpillar would supply 2 megawatts each, the state media said, adding that a further 16 generators of one megawatt each ordered from other countries would arrive within a week.
(Additional reporting by Thu Rein; Editing by Jon Hemming)