A week of protests in Myanmar over chronic power outages gained momentum on Friday after opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi gave them her blessing and the government's response added to popular outrage.
The protesters who gathered in Yangon as night fell, holding candles and praying for electricity, are testing their newfound freedoms in a fledgling democracy led by many of the same former generals who violently crushed past expressions of dissent.
"Over there I can already see candles," Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate detained for 15 years, told a crowd of supporters shortly before the protest, the latest in a series of demonstrations over power outages that began on Sunday in the northern city of Mandalay and spread to other areas.
"I'm happy to see them, because...I know people are expressing themselves peacefully. I remember an old saying: if you can't light a torch, light a candle. It means: do what you can do."
Minutes later, a power outage plunged the district into darkness. The crowd cheered and lit hundreds of candles, a symbol of long-festering discontent in this impoverished country where people often get just few hours of power a day and millions more have no electricity at all.
While the new government has embarked on the most dramatic reforms since a 1962 military coup, its mixed response to the protests suggests a difficult democratic transition - and the risk of further antagonizing a long-suffering public.
Police, for instance, dispersed protesters in the central town of Pyi on Thursday, a heavy-handed response reminiscent of the military junta that ruled for nearly half a century.
In Yangon, presidential adviser Ko Ko Hlaing said people should "economize" as the Japanese did after last year's devastating tsunami. "Let's light the candles in our own homes after switching off the lights. Everything will be OK then."
Many took offence.
Speaking before Suu Kyi, an elder from her National League for Democracy party referred to "that man who said people should use candles in their home rather than in protests", clearly meaning Ko Ko Hlaing. "I want to ask him: Do you even know the price of a candle?" Tin Oo said to cheers.
Ko Htin Kyaw, a former political prisoner and protest organizer, called the remarks "senseless". "We all were really upset," he said. "He should have said something more pragmatic."
State television announced emergency measures on Wednesday to boost electricity supplies, suggesting a government that realizes how popular discontent could derail its reform process and irk the United States and Europe, which recently suspended sanctions on this once-isolated country.
"THEY CAN IMPROVE"
"If they want us to stop protesting, they will have to give 24-hour electricity and more human rights," said K Lwin, a 20-year-old student who joined about 100 others on Thursday for a third night of protests in Yangon, the country's largest city.
"I hate the previous government. The new government is better ... but they can improve."
The protests are the latest challenge for President Thein Sein who has freed hundreds of political prisoners, started peace talks with ethnic minority rebels and held historic by-elections that catapulted Suu Kyi's party into parliament.
Western governments have begun unwinding decades of sanctions slapped on the former Burma because of the fast-paced and historic reforms.
Last year, in what was one of the first signs of Myanmar's new era, Thein Sein bowed to public pressure and cancelled the Myitsone dam being built on the Irrawaddy River by the Chinese. Power generated from the $3.6 billion project would have gone to neighboring China.
The power protests have produced what could be another Myitsone moment: a chance for the government to prove it knows how to listen.
It has made tentative moves in this direction, vowing to rush in six 2-megawatt generators bought from U.S. company Caterpillar Inc and two 25-megawatt gas turbines from U.S. conglomerate General Electric Co..
But with broken-down power stations and a dilapidated national grid, Myanmar will need more than a few generators and turbines to make up its power shortfall. Its plants have been generating about 1,340 megawatts during a recent drought, state media said, while power demand has reached 1,850 megawatts.
Protesters have accused the former military government of enriching itself at public expense by selling natural gas to China while Myanmar suffers frequent power outages.
"There is so much electricity on the other side in China. There's almost nothing here," read a sign held by one Yangon protester.
That message seems to have reached Beijing, where Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters that Chinese companies had "respect for relevant Myanmar laws and rules", adding that protesters' anger was directed at Myanmar's overstretched power grid rather than China's energy imports.
The demonstrations are the biggest since a 2007 monk-led uprising in which dozens were killed and hundreds arrested.
Newspapers have taken full advantage of a relaxation of media controls to report on the demonstrations, where protesters have been mobbed by local journalists and photographers.
"Most weekly papers are printing photos and stories about the protests, so they could get bigger," said Thiha Saw, editor of business monthly Myanma Dana.
Social networking sites have also been instrumental in spreading the word. Facebook users are circulating a photograph of Suu Kyi, taken before the protests began, holding a candle.
On April 1, Suu Kyi's party won 43 seats in parliament and the power shortages were a regular campaign theme. But even she called on Friday for the public to be "pragmatic" and to protest within the law.
"The power blackouts today are the result of decades of mismanagement," she said. "It is quite impossible to work for a sufficiency of power supply for the nation overnight."
Editor Thiha Saw believes the protests will subside when the rainy season arrives in the next two weeks or so and the hydroelectric dams fill up. But the worry is that the protests dovetail with other long-simmering causes of discontent.
Thousands of workers have been striking for better pay and conditions at factories on Yangon's outskirts. "Because there is not enough electricity, the workers from the garment industry will lose their jobs," said protest organizer Han Win Aung.