Myanmar's main cities are beset by power cuts, prompting several waves of candle-lit street protests, while villagers are forced into debts to finance the grid
When a village in the conflict-torn hills of eastern Myanmar was asked to pay authorities more than US$10,000 (Bt327,000) to plug into an electricity grid, families put themselves in debt to find the cash.
Ten months later children there are still squinting over their homework by candlelight and dinners are cooked on open fires as the work to connect their homes to power lies unfinished, beset by delays and bureaucracy.
Roughly 70 per cent of Myanmar’s population still does not have access to power, so the once pariah state, which already relies on hydropower to generate half of its electricity, is again turning to its rivers in new plans to harness energy from dams.
But as it rushes to plug the power gap, activists warn of worsening tensions in ethnic minority border areas, where such projects have long brought bloodshed and upheaval – but little energy.
Back in Saw La Yar Koo village, eastern Kayah state, residents are losing patience. Sitting under the soot-blacked ceiling of her living room in the faltering glow of the cooking fire, 24-year-old Pi Rar feels cheated.
“If we had electricity, we could cook with it, could use computers and the children could study at night. I attended a computer course but I couldn’t practise at home without power,” she said.
On the dusty track outside her house, where farmers drive bullock carts past simple wooden stilt homes, a gleaming transformer sits idly after villagers say cash-strapped authorities asked each family to stump up another $350 to install electricity.
“I had to borrow half of the 80,000 kyats [the initial payment of $80] from a moneylender... They [local authorities] say we have to pay more to connect the cables to the houses,” Pi Rar said.
The costs are likely to push this corn farming village into further debt just as it hopes to reap the rewards of a tentative peace deal in the state after years of bloody civil war.
Myanmar has promised access to electricity for 50 per cent of its population by 2020 and for all by 2030 as it clambers to reduce poverty and remain viable for the businesses piling into the former junta-ruled land.
Hydropower looks set to dominate. A string of major dams is planned along the Salween River, which courses from China down through the mountainous territories of eastern Myanmar’s many ethnic minorities.
But reliance on dams is deeply controversial as many projects stand in areas wracked by ethnic conflict where troops and landmines have often been deployed to guard large infrastructure projects against rebel attack.
Kayah activists fear Lawpita, Myanmar’s first hydropower project, could be the bloody blue-print for the country’s future dams.
Thousands were displaced by the project, which now provides around a quarter of the country’s hydropower capacity, and activists say a spike in soldiers stirred conflict and incidents of forced labour, land confiscation and sexual violence.
Dams are “conflict multipliers, which are not very helpful” as the country struggles to negotiate an end to more than half a century of civil wars in its ethnic borderlands, said Elliot Brennan, research fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy.
He said planned projects, including one in Kayah and a massive dam upstream in southern Shan state by the Chinese Three Gorges company, largely feed the demand for energy in China’s Yunnan province.
What electricity does stay in Myanmar has long been unevenly distributed.
Energy is routinely siphoned from resource rich minority areas to power the cities of Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw in the heartland of Myanmar’s Bamar majority.
This has caused deep resentment.
“What we have in our state – we should have a share. But electricity from Kayah goes to other places. Most government projects are like that,” said Burma Rivers Network researcher Mi Reh.
In a surprise snub to long-term ally Beijing, President Thein Sein suspended the Chinese-backed $3.6-billion Myitsone dam in northern Kachin state in 2011 after strong environmental concerns from the public, as clashes also broke out with local rebels over the project, ending a 17-year ceasefire.
Yet Beijing and Myanmar recently agreed to establish an electricity cooperation committee to keep future projects on track, as part of deals from China worth around $7.8 billion.
For now even Myanmar’s main cities are beset by power cuts, prompting several waves of candle-lit street protests since the end of military rule in 2011.
In Kayah much of the energy comes from Lawpita, but local electricity authorities admit that while the dam provides 210 megawatts to the national grid, it gets just 15MW.
Unsurprisingly, torches and solar panels are still hot sellers at Demoso market, where people from the hilly region near Pi Rar’s village flock to shop.
Teens in punk rock T-shirts swagger past the statuesque women of the Padaung tribe, their necks ringed with tall brass coils, as Nay Soe sells his solar panels for up to 100,000 kyats.
He has noticed a slight slowdown in sales as reforms in recent years brought an uptick in energy access, but does not believe new state schemes will put him out of business any time soon.
“It won’t be within the next 20 years,” he said.