The recent protests to demand 24-hour electricity in the wake of frequent power blackouts in Mandalay and Rangoon demonstrates that Burma’s new reformist government needs to provide clear answers to this urgent matter sooner rather than later.
The Ministry of Electric Power’s unusual plea to the public did not convince many to give President Thein Sein’s administration the benefit of the doubt, despite that fact it appears to encourage accountability, transparency and good governance.
The statement simply said that rationing was being applied to cope with greater demand and decreased supply during the hot summer months. But it also blamed ethnic Kachin rebels for blowing up several electricity pylons in northern Burma as part of the prolonged conflict there.
Burma has long been notorious for power blackouts and hundreds of businesses including hotels, factories and private hospitals use their own generators fueled by expensive imported diesel.
Police briefly detained several protest leaders in Mandalay and officers in Rangoon also stopped a group of demonstrators from marching. Residents say that as word of the planned protest spread across social media networks such as the ever-popular Facebook the authorities have able to take precautions and deploy security personnel in force.
In Mandalay, Special Branch officers were looking for the main coordinators behind the protests, according to Nyi Pu Lay, a former political prisoner and well-known short story writer. However, one must wonder how the government hopes to find a scapegoat in this case.
The irony is that the finger should really be pointed straight at the decades-old mismanagement of the previous regime and current chief Electric Power Minister Zaw Min.
The minister has been deeply unpopular since the controversial Chinese-funded Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State was suspended. Before Thein Sein’s executive order he refused to halt the construction despite a huge public outcry.
Zaw Min’s remarks enraged many when he said that the government provided sufficient power to Burma of 1,500 megawatts, and that the country actually had a surplus. “So who will consume it instead? If we don’t consume it, we have to sell it,” he said. Since then, people have been calling for him to resign, but Naypyidaw is yet to make a move.
This week, facing growing protests spreading across its cities, the state-run media has sought to explain the outages, which have reduced supplies to just four or five hours of power a day in Mandalay.
It said Myanmar had 18 hydropower stations, one coal-fired power plant and 10 gas-fired power stations to supply the entire country of over 60 million people. These plants have been generating 1,340 megawatts during the recent drought, while power consumption has been as high as 1,850 megawatts. But it did not confess how under the previous junta much of the country’s electricity was sold to neighboring China and Thailand.
According to Earth Rights International (ERI), at least 45 Chinese multinational corporations have been involved in approximately 63 hydropower projects in Burma, including several related substation and transmission line schemes.
Of these hydropower projects, the largest is the 7,100-megawatt Tasang Dam on the Salween River, which is to be integrated into the Asian Development Bank’s Greater Mekong Sub-region Power Grid.
The Tasang Dam is one of several on the Salween River. China is involved in many of these large-scale projects with most of the electricity destined for export to neighboring Thailand.
In Kachin State, Chinese companies are also involved in the construction of seven massive dams along the N’Mai Hka, Mali Hka and Irrawaddy rivers, taking into account that one, the Myitsone, is currently suspended. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed between Burma’s Ministry of Electric Power and Chinese companies about these in 2006.
An important hydropower project for Mandalay is at Yeywa Dam, with many senior army leaders visiting the site in the past. Several Chinese companies including China Gezhouba Group Co., Sinohydro and CITIC Group financed the project, ERI stated. The dam should produce over 700 megawatts, but it is still uncertain whether residents of Mandalay who suffer power blackouts will feel any of the benefits.
An article published in state-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar on Dec. 30, 2010, claimed that, “Up to 1988, the nation’s electric power output stood at only 529.1 megawatts. In its time, the Tatmadaw [armed forces] government has been constructing hydropower plants and coal-fired power plants one after another.
“Now the nation has 32 more power plants whose installed capacity is 3,045.4 megawatts,” the paper boasted. “Sixty-one power plants are under construction whose installed capacity will be 41,206.5 megawatts and one more plant will be constructed with installed capacity of 25 megawatts.”
The report suggested Burma could have an electricity surplus in the near future. “When the 94 power plants are completed, the total installed capacity will reach 44,266.9 megawatts and will be able to generate 254,000 million kilowatt-hours a year.”
Then on Jan. 2, 2011—just after the November general elections—the same paper bragged again, “Due to improvements of lifestyle and conditions of socio-economy, demand of electricity is increasing day-by-day. Upon completion, the completed projects will satisfy the electricity demands  percent in addition to surplus production.”
Back in Rangoon, however, protesters have been peacefully chanting, “We want electricity like in Naypyidaw!”
Burma recently asked Japan and South Korea for help building two power complexes just outside Rangoon to help rectify its electricity shortage. During his recent trip to Japan, Thein Sein toured two thermal power plants.
Sources say that the Japanese-built coal plant will aim to produce 600 megawatts and take three-to-four years to build, while the gas-fuelled South Korean plant will generate 500 megawatts and be operational within a year.
With incomplete hydropower dam projects across Burma, years of mismanagement and growing public discontent toward corrupt and ineffective government ministers, one can safely say that Thein Sein, like everyone else, may struggle to see the light ahead.