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Junta preps citizens for a return to perpetual blackouts

Burma’s national electrical grid is—just ten months after the coup d’etat—operating at only 66 percent of maximum capacity, state media announced on Wednesday night.

The junta’s MRTV channel warned citizens that power outages should be expected at any time between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., and urged the public to reduce energy consumption at times of peak demand. 

For many, the announcement is an all too familiar reminder of the dark days of military rule, where mismanagement, corruption, and lack of investment led to frequent and prolonged power outages across the entire country.

The junta’s Ministry of Energy and Electricity said in a statement that—despite Burma’s power generation capacity usually standing at around 4,200 MW—759 MW of power generation had been taken off-grid after a quadrupling of the price of LNG, 540 MW of capacity has been cut due to the maintenance of junta’s international Yadana Offshore Gas Project, and 180 MW has been lost after 230 KV towers supplying electricity to Baluchaung Hydropower Plant exploded. 

Although work on the Yadana project is expected to be finalised by Jan. 7, and despite the junta claiming that plans are underway to repair the damaged Baluchaung towers as soon as possible, the MoEE admitted that supplies to the grid will remain low.

The announcement comes as no surprise to those within Burma, whose lived experiences tell of debilitating power outages of increasing frequency and duration since Feb. 1.

On Dec. 21, the Regional Electricity Distribution Department announced that all townships in Ayeyarwady Region would lose power from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily—the reason provided being the maintenance of the 230 kv power line leading to the region from Yangon’s Hlaingtharyar substation. Over two weeks later, supplies are far from returning to normal.

A housewife in Ayeyarwady’s Danubyu township told DVB that power outages are now frequent in many cities across the country, and that they last longer in the countryside. 

“For me, it is no longer possible to cook with electricity across the day, so I now have to cook with firewood. Blackouts sometimes last almost the whole day,” she told DVB. 

In past eras, the military and its cronies bypassed the country’s failed national grid by fitting their homes with large and expensive petrol generators. For Burma’s 2022 generation, wholly reliant on wifi and electronic devices for work, lack of power is no longer an option; those who can afford it are looking at ways to end their reliance on centralised, military controlled, power sources, with advertisements for solar cells, generators, and inverters becoming ever more prevalent on Burmese social media. 

“The blackouts have meant that electronic devices constantly run out of power, making it difficult to stay in contact with colleagues and meet tight deadlines. [Since the coup] the internet connection has also become terrible. These realities are a direct threat to our livelihoods,” said one young professional in Yangon who, since the coup, relies on cloud computing to link up with colleagues.

One theory, not yet addressed by the junta, is that power outages are partially the outcome of an ongoing nationwide boycott of electricity bills. Despite the junta sending soldiers to cut supplies to entire urban areas—and to forcibly extort citizens for balances due—the boycott movement still possesses significant momentum.

In September, NUG Minister of Finance and Investment, Tin Tun Naing, told Radio Free Asia that he believed the junta’s Ministry of Electricity and Energy had failed to recoup around K2 trillion (US$1 billion) in money for meter bills in the seven months following the coup. According to NUG’s figures, over 97 percent of customers in Burma’s two largest cities, Yangon and Mandalay, have boycotted bills as part of CDM, with 80 percent of all other citizens opting to withhold payment. 

“It will be one year this coming February that our home did not pay electricity fees. A year’s worth of bills is an awful lot of money to pay, but I have decided not to pay it until the last chance,” said a resident of Yangon’s Sanchaung township, echoing the views of most in Burma. 

Many citizens expressed disbelief at how quickly the junta has managed to destroy Burma’s national grid.

“In past times of military rule, the winter was usually the best time to get electricity. In the next few months, with the extreme heat and then the monsoon testing the terrible infrastructure, I expect things will get even worse than they are now,” said a resident of Insein township who noted that, over the past decade, he had relied on Yangon’s improved power supply to run an energy-intensive industrial company.

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