Myanmar blackouts recall darker days

Power outages underline concerns over competence of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government
Darker days: Myanmar is short of power – and confidence in the government

A wave of power cuts in Myanmar has riled residents and fuelled a wider frustration in business and politics about the pace of change under Aung San Suu Kyi’s 14-month-old government.

Blackouts long familiar from the days of military control have returned as the hot dry season gives way to the monsoon rains, defying official pledges to boost electricity supply in the face of climbing demand.

The energy woes have plagued showpiece events and reinforced public dismay at the civilian-led administration’s handling of the vast social problems generated by almost half a century of dictatorship. While the leader known to many as “the Lady” retains great public popularity, some who deal with her fledgling government complain that it is short of management skills and does not consult or communicate enough.

“You definitely hear grumbling more than in the past from businessmen and elite people,” said Richard Horsey, an analyst and long-time resident of Yangon, the commercial capital, who said he had recently suffered a rare 12-hour power outage at his downtown flat.

“They are not very satisfied with the first year in office. Government is not working as a machine that finds solutions to identified problems.”

Power failures that have gone viral include a succession of outages that triggered howls of social media frustration from attendees at an otherwise lauded May 21 Tedx conference in Yangon. Phyo Min Thein, Yangon’s chief minister, fell victim to another high-profile cut last month at an international event intended to promote small and medium-sized businesses.

Aung Ye Kyaw, a 28-year-old entrepreneur who runs a digital comics company, said outages that sometimes lasted the whole morning meant his artists had no light to draw and technicians could not scan work to finalise editions.

“We just heard that the authorities are changing the whole capacity, grid by grid, so that means more frequent blackouts,” he said, the lights in the room flickering as if on cue. “We have to believe it — because we can’t see it.”

Eroding popularity: Investors are anxious about the performance of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.

A factory owner said private generator power added almost $150,000 in running costs to his business each year, because it was almost six times as expensive as the top rate charged for state electricity.

“Do you notice this new government hasn’t done much?” asked the businessman, who — like others — asked not to be named because he does not want to be seen attacking the new administration. “I don’t think anyone is taking the initiative to do anything.”

Official plans to secure emergency power generation capacity from foreign companies to deal with the rising needs of the fast-growing economy have yet to yield results.

A strategy on how to deal with the country’s ever more acute chronic energy shortage also remains unclear. The power sector remains distorted by big consumer subsidies not available to the many who still live in areas not linked to the national grid, in what remains one of south-east Asia’s poorest states.

Mya Thuza, joint secretary of the government Myanmar Investment Commission, admitted that “everybody is worried about power”. She said new high-rise residential blocks and even companies arriving in dedicated industrial zones were putting in their own generators because they felt they still could not rely on the official supply.

She said authorities were replacing transmission lines that were sometimes almost 50 years old. But this also caused anger when they failed to warn users of planned outages.

“There are so many complaints,” she lamented, noting that the electricity had gone down without notice in her own office for several hours the previous day. “There are so many challenges.”

The apparent lack of official direction on power has played into wider concerns that decision-making in the Suu Kyi government is top-down, untransparent and reflects what critics say is the leader’s autocratic style. Her administration is also preoccupied with crucial tasks such as a stuttering peace process aimed at bringing an end to seven decades of internal conflict.

Another concern is of alleged bureaucratic inertia among officials loyal in some cases to a military that still holds the levers of power, including parliamentary seats and crucial ministries. In the new government, “the head has changed, but the body has not”, said one activist for Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.

The Myanmar leader’s supporters dispute the broader characterisation of the electricity problem as a sign that their historic government is in office but not really in power. Win Htein, a longtime Suu Kyi confidant and political enforcer in her party, branded the administration’s critics “bloody idiots”.

He cast his defence of energy policy into an appeal for more understanding of the country’s new leaders, many of whom are still adjusting from former lives as clandestine activists or political prisoners.

“They are trying their best, and they are not corrupt,” he said. “Ask the people who complain: do you want the military to take over again?”

Source: FT

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