The Burmese government’s announcement that it will dramatically raise fuel and electricity prices has come under attack from environmental campaigners who claim the justification given for the decision – that it needs to fill a budget deficit – is false.
Instead, according to a joint statement released by Arakan Oil Watch (AOW) and Burma Rivers Network (BRN), the government is likely to pocket the surplus made from the doubling of electricity costs, and the increase by a third of fuel prices.
“In fact, Burma is earning over $US2 billion annually exporting its major natural gas and hydro electricity resources to China and Thailand as well as ensuring its future energy resources are also being exported with current pipelines and dams under construction,” said the statement.
Thurein, spokesperson of AOW, said there should instead “be a budget surplus” from sales of power to neighbouring countries, which continues apace despite around 80 percent of Burma’s population being unable to access reliable sources of electricity.
The price hike materialised last week, although the biggest increase is ostensibly reserved for businesses, while domestic consumption will see less of a hike. What that ruling belies however is concern among the many small-scale businesses in Burma that operate out of homes, and which therefore will be charged at the commercial rate.
Fuel and electricity shortages in Burma have long been cause for anger amongst the country’s population, which has watched as many of its rivers have been heavily dammed by Chinese companies, and whose output largely goes to Yunnan province, rather than staying in the country.
“There is no problem with selling power and resources if there is a surplus after domestic use, but the government is not transparent with these sales,” said Thurein. Instead, the groups believe, it is using the vast discrepancy between official and unofficial exchange rates to hide the profit it makes from the population.
“The government doesn’t tell us where the money will be used, where it is kept, as to whether in banks abroad or in-country, nor the exchange rates specified,” he continued. “If they are to disclose this information under a transparent [working] system, then there should be no more hikes in power and fuel prices in our country,”
The decision to hike electricity prices may have been taken with some trepidation: a sudden rise in the price of fuel four years ago was the key catalyst behind the September 2007 uprising that eventually prompted thousands of Burmese to take to the streets.
While electricity prices on average remain comparatively low in Burma, the majority of the country that struggles for regular power is forced to turn to other sources. The Myanmar Times noted late last year that areas off the national grid paid around 500 kyat ($US0.60) per unit for electricity from diesel-powered generators, as opposed to the average in urban areas of around 40 kyat.
China is behind the majority of Burma’s 40-odd hydropower projects and receives the lion’s share of produce. Similarly, the India-backed 1,200 MW Tamanthi dam in northwestern Burma will allow only 20 percent of output to remain in Burma, much of which is destined for the vast Monywa copper mine in Sagaing division.