Scheduled cuts to Myanmar’s shaky electricity supply over the past week to take pressure off the country’s strained power grid have failed to remedy dire shortages, sources said Friday, as activists warned that the junta’s failure to restore power distribution could cost hundreds of thousands of jobs.
More than 13 months after the military seized power in a February 1, 2021, coup, Myanmar is mired in political and economic turmoil, while life is becoming increasingly difficult for average people due to the rising cost of food, as well as regular power and water shortages.
Even in Myanmar’s commercial capital, Yangon, which is home to an estimated 7 million people, sources say power is cut off twice in every 24-hour period, with homes sometimes left dark for six hours each day. Only the capital, Naypyidaw, where the country’s military junta is based, has enjoyed uninterrupted electricity since the overthrow of civilian rule.
Earlier this month, the junta announced that it had scheduled further cuts to the supply from March 12 to 18, blaming increased gas prices and attacks on infrastructure by anti-junta People’s Defense Force paramilitary groups.
However, sources throughout the country told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the reduction had done little to improve their access to power and expressed frustration over the difficulties they face in their daily lives under military rule.
A resident of Yangon’s Thingangyun township, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said power outages since the beginning of March had forced people to turn to charcoal stoves for cooking and wait for the electricity to come back on so that they can pump water.
He said that during the week of scheduled power cuts, “it wasn’t any different.”
“The number of hours we have power are far fewer than those when we have outages,” the resident said.
“When the power does come on, it’s only for a short while. We can't even use our rice cooker to cook rice. Now I must buy bags of charcoal for cooking.”
Other sources in Yangon told RFA that when the power is on, so many people begin drawing water that pumps burn out due to overheating. Additionally, the power often only comes on for minutes at a time, they said, and it can take hours for people to fill containers with the water that they need for their homes. Meanwhile, massive lines form daily in areas of the city where water is distributed by tankers.
A villager in Mon state who declined to be named told RFA that the region experiences daily power outages and people are increasingly forced to fetch water from wells, as they did before there was access to electricity.
“Our water supplies must be refilled as soon as there is power,” she said. “If you forget to fill up, you’re in big trouble.”
However, while she can get the water she needs from the village well, she said small businesses in the area that rely on electricity to operate have few alternatives and must close when the power is off.
Businesses forced to close
A garment factory owner in Mon who employs around 100 workers said he is forced to rely on generators to run his business, which can cost up to 80,000 kyats ($45) a day.
Daw Myo Myo Aye, chairwoman of the United Confederation of Trade Unions, said some garment factories are shutting down completely in March due to power outages.
“The electricity supply had always been insufficient in the past, but now it’s getting worse,” she said.
“Fuel prices are a lot higher than they used to be, so profits are falling. ... All of this is on top of the political instability and the economic downturn, so owners may be considering shutting down their businesses.”
As businesses close due to power outages, the country has seen rising rates of unemployment, a labor activist said.
“We have seen a drop in all electricity-dependent work and unemployment is on the rise,” he said.
The activist said more than 600,000 people used to work at the Shwepyithar and Hlaingtharya industrial zones on the outskirts of Yangon, but the number had dropped by half due to the coronavirus pandemic and political unrest following the coup.
“And now, factories are cutting back on business because of the lack of electricity,” he said.
“For business owners, it’s not possible to run generators for their operations because the price of fuel is too high. So, if factories close, at least 200,000 more workers will be laid off in the industrial zones.”
Reliable power ‘impossible’
An electrical engineer named Zaw Yan told RFA that Myanmar will never have a reliable power supply while the junta is in charge.
“It is impossible to increase production from our hydropower plants. The generators in the plants require spare parts which must be ordered from abroad, and it is difficult to get them in the present situation,” Zaw Yan said.
“Furthermore, many employees of the Ministry of Electricity and Energy are taking part in the [anti-junta] Civil Disobedience Movement,” he said.
“Because of this, it’s impossible for the country’s power grid to operate at full capacity and provide a quality supply to the people [under military rule].”