It’s always been about power in Burma, whether it be the Machiavellian governance of its leaders, or the blackouts that for decades have plagued the energy-rich country. The ties that bind the two are intrinsic – back in 2007, it was dramatic fuel price hikes that prompted tens of thousands of monks and civilians to take to the streets and present to the regime the most audacious challenge to its grip on the country since the 1988 uprising.
You’d think some lessons might have been learned in the intervening period, but alas, no. Immediately after Aung San Suu Kyi’s by-election victory on 1 April, the government began load shedding, and buildings in Rangoon were put on electricity rotas that for many meant an evening of darkness, every other day. The timing may have been deliberate: “People get sullen and don’t want to talk about politics in the dark,” quipped a Burmese friend.
But that constant denial of light creates a pressure cooker of sorts, and over the weekend up to 1,000 residents of Mandalay took to the streets in the biggest protest in Burma since 2007 (DVB reports that some have subsequently been arrested). “We’ve been putting up with this [power shortages] for three months now,” Ko Ko Lay, one of the protesters, told The Irrawaddy. Burma’s second city has had to make do with around four hours of electricity per day. “This has nothing to do with politics. We just want our basic needs met.”
While that may be so, there is historically a political dimension to the power shortages: during the years of outwardly military rule, it was used as a tool of pacification – for anyone who has experienced lengthy blackouts, it makes any sort of organising vastly more difficult (while, of course, helping to enrich the generals, who were known to siphon profits from energy sales into private offshore accounts). Back then, the likelihood of people openly reacting was slim (that the September 2007 protests actually happened, rather than merely the threat of them erupting, took everyone by surprise), but that is gradually changing, as the Mandalay protests show.
What angers Burmese is the enormous energy wealth the country has, and the interest from abroad it attracts. Its proven gas reserves are ranked at around 40th in the world, but much of the country has not been properly explored, and its potential is vast. Hydropower is another booming sector, particularly so given the topography of the mountainous border regions in the north and east. Like gas, however, the overwhelming majority of output is sold to neighbouring countries, particularly, China, Thailand and India – 75 percent of the population cannot access regular power supplies.
That makes statements such as those that appeared in state media today incredibly aggravating. “As production exceeded consumption in this season, enough electricity could be distributed to the people, factories, workshops and businesses,” said a statement by the power ministry in the New Light of Myanmar. No it couldn’t.
The blame for shortages lies squarely at the feet of the government – no country so rich in energy should have a population bereft of round-the-clock electricity (most Burmese cannot afford the imported diesel used to power generators during blackouts, largely on account of the fact that it is sold for inflated prices on the black market). But it stills tries to shirk responsibility – just last week, it pinned the blame for electricity shortages across the country on attacks by Kachin rebels on sections of a power grid in Shan state.
Ducking responsibility will only anger Burmese more, at a time when their confidence at speaking out is growing bolder. Foreign interest in the country’s energy sector is increasing in the wake of suspended EU and US sanctions, but the question of ethical investment must now also stretch to the equal distribution of power (in both its manifestations).