Electricity shortages add to woes in post-coup Myanmar

People line up to fill water containers in Yangon on March 14, 2022, as thousands faced water shortages due to power outages in the city.STR/AFP/Getty Images

On February 1, exactly one year after the military coup in Myanmar, a man set himself on fire outside his local electricity office. According to media reports on the incident, he was protesting the increase in power cuts that had affected his iron fencing business. He died later that day, leaving behind a handwritten note: “May all citizens of Myanmar have light 24 hours a day. We are not going back to 2001-2002.

Back then, the country was isolated under military rule and was considered one of the least developed in the world. Less than half the population had access to electricity, and prolonged blackouts were common even in urban areas. That changed with the end of half a century of direct military rule in 2011. Millions of people gained access to electricity in the years that followed, while power cuts decreased in frequency and duration.

The 2021 coup, however, plunged Myanmar into an economic crisis and jeopardized its electrification plans. In addition to stopping cash flow and causing the value of the currency to plummet and food and fuel prices to rise, the military takeover triggered an energy crisis that plunged communities across the country in darkness for hours every day.

The problem has been steadily worsening since around October and has accelerated since the start of the hot season in February. Earlier this month, water shortages had occurred in Yangon and residents in some neighborhoods were queuing with buckets to fetch water from charity groups.

On March 18, Yangon Electricity Supply Corp., which falls under the military ministry of electricity and energy, announced that it would start supplying electricity on a schedule, with power outages eight hours a day. in the city and 12 hours a day. in the neighborhoods on its outskirts, including its industrial areas. Although the formalization of the continuous power outages helps alleviate water shortages, it is another benchmark in the rollback of development gains made during the democratic transition of the last decade, before the coup. .

Street food vendors wait for customers during a power outage in Yangon on March 3.-/AFP/Getty Images

Most of Myanmar’s electricity comes from offshore hydropower and gas, and in public statements released in January and this month, the military has blamed power shortages on rising global oil prices. gas, maintenance work and the destruction of power lines.

But several other factors may play a role in the crisis. Since As a result, many international investors in the energy sector have withdrawn or suspended their projects. The regime’s isolation is set to continue, with the United States recently declaring that the military committed genocide against the country’s Rohingya in a campaign of killings, arson and rape in 2017.

Since the coup, the Ministry of Electricity and Energy has struggled to operate its infrastructure, honor contractual obligations, cover costs or complete projects, according to a report by a group of independent financial experts.

Contributing to the financial losses of the ministry is a public boycott on the payment of electricity bills. The National Unity Government, or NUG, Myanmar’s government in absentia, estimated that only 2-3% of electricity consumers in Yangon and Mandalay paid their meter bills and 20% in other parts of the country by September, and found that these boycotts had cost the military $1 billion.

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U Soe Thura Tun, NUG’s power and energy minister, said in a written response that the current electricity crisis was not surprising and that his ministry was promoting solar power at home use and had been advising the public to prepare since November.

He attributed the main cause of the power outages to “mismanagement”. The military administration, he said, had not allocated sufficient budget to continue the subsidies, which were offered by the civilian government, and “did not try to improve the electrical system”.

A military spokesman and three deputy directors general of the military-run Electricity and Energy Ministry did not respond to calls seeking comment. A call center operator from Yangon Electricity Supply Corp. said he was not authorized to speak to the media.

A child carries a container to fill with water in Yangon on March 14.Contributor AFP#AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Electricity shortages are hurting homes and businesses across Myanmar and compounding the growing hardship of the urban poor. But without a predictable solution to this crisis, people have been forced to adapt. The Globe and Mail spoke to a number of people about their experiences and how they reacted. The Globe agreed not to name them to protect them from reprisals from the regime.

A woman, who runs a hair salon in Yangon, said the power outages have complicated tasks, from washing to drying hair, and driving up operating costs. Her water supply often runs out and she has to buy it by the bucket from hawkers. She bought a generator this month, but uses it sparingly due to high fuel costs.

At 3,000 Burmese kyats (about $2.10) for a cut and dry, it’s getting harder and harder to make a profit. “We need to pump the water fast and get people’s hair done fast,” she said. “When we finish washing someone’s hair, we wrap them in a towel and ask the customer to wait. We do the same with three or four clients, then we run the generator and dry them all at the same time. »

Power outages occur during the hottest months of the year, leaving older people particularly vulnerable. In Yangon, a 70-year-old man said he had trouble sleeping. If anything were to happen to him while his children are out, however, he would have a hard time calling for help, as he is unable to charge his phone.

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Another woman, 66, also said she stayed awake at night in her apartment in Yangon because of the heat and mosquito bites, while the lack of water prevented her from showering regularly. “I feel queasy and tired,” she said. Her family, who make a living selling food, now use charcoal and gas for cooking due to power cuts. She said an increase in the price of these items has added to their difficulties.

Power cuts have also affected people’s work and education.

Millions of students refused to go to school under the military administration, and many are studying online instead. A medical student in Taunggyi, Shan state, said she was on strike but taking online courses at a university in the United States. However, the power outages caused her to miss classes and fall behind on her homework. “I have to make a lot of apologies to my academic advisors and my professors,” she said.

For young people, living without electricity is also demoralizing. A young man, who was active in the non-violent protest movement and left Yangon in January for security reasons, now cultivates a rice field with his grandfather in Mon State, where he is just three hours old of electricity per day.

He fears that young people in Myanmar are falling further behind the rest of the world. “[The power outages] closing opportunities for young people and blocking our future. They force young people to back down,” he said.

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