Myanmar learns to live with the lights out

By Aung Hla Tun

Yangon - Chronic power shortages in Myanmar are leaving cities in the former Burma shrouded in almost permanent blackout, driving its citizens to despair and crippling an economy reeling from decades of military misrule.

"We've had only nine hours of electricity in the last three days," lamented Yi Yi Soe, a resident of the leafy colonial-era capital, Yangon. "Some of our neighbours have completely run out of water."

As with other problems in the once-prosperous ex-British colony, there is little explanation in the state-controlled media, which abound with pictures of generals inaugurating new hydropower projects and promising sufficient power "next year".

Few people believe them.

Instead, with a stoicism born of 45 years under military rule, they have learnt to live with the privations.

"We haven't been able to use the washing machine for ages as the power never lasts long enough. It now serves as a laundry basket," said Yangon housewife Hla Myint, adding that all her other electrical goods were virtually worthless.

"We recently decided to retire the rice cooker and we use the fridge as a cupboard. We've unplugged the cable and keep the crockery and glassware inside."

According to official data, in 2006 Myanmar could generate 1,775 megawatts of electricity for a population of 53 million. By contrast, neighbouring Thailand produces 26 000 MW for its 65 million people - more than 12 times the power per capita.

Small businesses such as photo-processing shops or Internet cafes need portable generators to get by and have to hike prices to reflect the high cost of diesel, nearly all of which is imported.

"I now charge two different prices for photocopying: 20 kyat (about R26) per page with government-supplied power and 50 kyat (about R58) with own generator", photocopy shop owner Kyi Aung said.

But the use of generators comes with hidden costs for the wider population, mainly in the form of noise and air pollution.

"With all the blackouts, generator noise, diesel fumes and flash floods in the rainy season due to the choked drains, life here has become horrible," said Ba Tin, a retired civil servant.

"My whole family has developed a sort of migraine. We often get headaches and nausea, especially when the big diesel generators in the restaurants next door are running," he said.

Doctors and psychiatrists say they are having to treat an increased number of respiratory ailments and stress-related conditions, which they attribute to the noise and fumes.

The situation grew so acute in February with the start of the hot season, that a small group Yangon residents staged a rare anti-government protest.

"Our cause is for 24-hour electricity" the protesters chanted before they were arrested.

The widespread use of generators also creates a massive fire hazard, and local papers are full of reports of neighbourhoods or blocks burnt to the ground due to an unattended generator overheating.

Beyond the southeast Asian nation's commercial centre, conditions appear to be even worse.

Residents of Sittwe, the capital of the northwestern state of Rakhine which is home to Myanmar's vast off-shore natural gas reserves, say they have not received any state electricity for a decade.

Private companies sell power at 300 kyat (about R350) a unit, compared with 25 kyat (about R29) in Yangon, and even then the lights are only on from 7pm to 10pm - just long enough for the junta's propaganda blitz on state-run MRTV.

"As soon as MRTV's evening news ends, the blackout starts," Sittwe resident Ko Aung Khine told Reuters.

The only place not suffering is Nay Pyi Taw, the secretive junta's brand new administrative capital, purpose-built in hills and scrubland about 385km north of Yangon.

Many in Yangon believe the blackouts are a deliberate ploy to make the port city in the Irrawaddy delta so insufferable that government workers and others will be happy to move to the Nay Pyi Taw, which remains little more than a building site.

"It's very strange that all the roads are brightly lit even though they are almost deserted day and night, while the crowded roads in Yangon have no lights," economics student Saw Lwin said.

"You can't help wondering if the government is forcing all of us to go and settle in Nay Pyi Taw," added his father, Ba Tin. "With the daily blackouts here every day, we can't do anything."


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