Prolonged power blackouts and soaring fuel prices in Myanmar are hitting people in cities hard and increasing uncertainty for the country’s businesses, according to interviews with people in Yangon and elsewhere in the country.
Occasional blackouts started in late December and prolonged power cuts began in January. The junta has said the cuts will continue until May. Causes cited by the government include increased prices for natural gas used for generating plants, maintenance and upgrades at the Yadana offshore gas project, and opposition forces’ attacks on transmission towers in Kayah state. France’s TotalEnergies and the U.S. firm Chevron said earlier this year they were pulling out of the Yadana field, a major project, in light of last year’s coup.
The outages have become a major burden on people already dealing with COVID-19 and the aftermath of the coup. Most cities in Myanmar have experienced irregular blackouts since late February.
They worsened in March, with power cuts lasting up to six hours. In Yangon, electricity has been supplied for four-hour periods, followed by four-hour blackouts, since March 18. However, the schedule is not reliable, with frequent outages while power is supposed to be on.
“Meat and vegetables often spoil in the refrigerator because of long power cuts. I have had to throw rice and meals away because of backouts while I was cooking. We cannot rely on electricity any longer,” Khin Thuzar, a mother of four in Yangon’s Hlaing township, told VOA.
She bought a gas stove last month but said she now must spend more money for gas.
Similarly, many people living in Yangon and Mandalay told VOA they face similar issues.
During the February-May hot season, with temperatures approaching 35-40 degrees Celsius, people crowd air-conditioned shopping malls.
“How can we live together in a 12-foot-wide apartment without power in this hottest month? I feel like our life is returning to the time of before 2010 [when a power shortage eased],” said Thein Lwin, a retired military sergeant who lives with eight family members in a high-rise building in Yangon’s Latha township.
Most of Myanmar’s urban population relies on electric pumps to fill household water tanks. Because of regular extended power cuts and municipal water shortages in March, people in many townships must pay about $1.40 for 189-liter commercial deliveries. Those in high-rise buildings without elevators must pay double that. Urban residents who cannot afford to buy water line up with buckets to get water from local charities.
Tun Tun Oo, chairman of the Shinthanyay Charities Association, a local group distributing water, said in densely populated areas such as Yangon’s Dagon Seikkan and Thaketa townships, demand for water is increasing. He said more than 25,000 gallons of water are provided daily to some townships.
While many Myanmar townships face power shortages and darkness, people in the capital, Naypyitaw, home to coup leader Min Aung Hlaing and many former military leaders, rarely face blackouts. There are lights on in the city’s empty streets at night.
“Blackouts are very rare in Naypyitaw. When they happen, they only last a few minutes,” Mari Aung, a resident of Naypyitaw’s Pyinmana township told VOA.
‘We are suffering losses and struggling a lot’
Skyrocketing fuel prices and prolonged power shortages are making it difficult for businesses, including those in the garment sector.
Factory owners told VOA that they are struggling to maintain their businesses in the face of a number of difficulties. The junta has said power would be supplied to factories in industrial areas from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., but there are random blackouts lasting from 30 minutes to an hour during those times. Moreover, factory owners said that is not enough power for factories to run 24 hours a day, as some of them do.
The owner of a rice mill in the Shwelinpan Industrial Zone in Hlaing Tharyar township, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told VOA his factory had previously been operating 24 hours a day but now could not operate after 5 p.m. because of a lack of electricity.
Given the cost of the diesel fuel for the generators needed when power is out, he said he has had to cut operating hours by a third, to 16 hours a day.
There are more than 400 factories operating in the 445-hectare Shwelinpan zone, all of which have cut production because of insufficient electricity, said an official of the industrial zone management committee.
"The problem of power shortages has [a] huge impact on us. We are suffering losses and struggling a lot to keep our businesses operating in this critical situation,” the official, who asked not to be named, told VOA by telephone March 29.
Because of heavy depreciation of the kyat, Myanmar’s currency, and a global spike in fuel prices in mid-March, a liter of premium diesel has more than tripled in price since before the coup. To relieve the fuel price hike problem, the industrial zone management committee proposed to the Yangon Region Administration Council to sell fuel at below the market price.
“We have not received any response yet,” the official said.
Tun Tun Oo, owner of a drinking water plant in Mandalay’s Chanmyathazi township, said he is thinking of shutting down his business until May unless the electricity supply improves.
“It is not cost-effective running with a generator. If we do not make a profit, it is impossible to run our business in the long run,” he said.
Some other businesses are also thinking of suspending operation for all of April, which includes several days for this year’s Thingyan water festival holiday, when they would be closed anyway, in response to the power cuts and the soaring cost of diesel.
Reduced working hours and suspended operations are affecting factory workers in various ways, including loss of overtime pay.
Zaw Zaw Htwe, who works for a noodle factory in Swepyithar township, has had his earnings cut in half.
“My salary only covers the rent on my house and basic food,” the father of three said, “For other expenses, I have to borrow from others at a high interest rate.”
While power outages and rising fuel prices are hitting all classes of people in Myanmar hard, the military regime seems unable to solve these problems in the short term.
Junta spokesperson General Zaw Min Tun told reporters March 24 that the part-time power supply system is likely to continue until May.
The junta says it can only supply 873 megawatts of power for the whole nation, although the peak period demand is 3,400 megawatts.