A hike in electricity prices in Myanmar’s biggest city Yangon has sparked protests by residents angry over the sharp and sudden rise and demanding improvements to the country’s power supply scheme.
Some 100 demonstrators carrying lighted candles marched through the city streets Wednesday night to demand the local government put off the plan to raise the fees.
The government-run Yangon Electricity Supply Board (YESB) announced new rates last week that will give most families a 40 percent increase in their monthly electricity bill.
After the protest police arrested six activists, all later released on bail, for leading the demonstration without a permit under a controversial law.
“We protested because authorities raised electricity prices without letting people know in advance,” said Zayar, one of those charged with leading the demonstration without a permit.
“Our country sells many natural resources including natural gas and electricity [to other countries], but we, its citizens, don’t have enough electricity,” he said.
Zayar and three other activists from a consumers’ group—Thein Aung Myint, Tin Maung Kyi, and Naung Naung— were arrested and charged in Pabedan township under Section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, which rights groups have criticized as widely used to silence activists.
Two more activists, Tin Htut Paing from the Generation Youth civil society group and Thein Aung Myint, were charged under the same law at the nearby Kyauktada township station.
All six face up to a year in prison and a fine if convicted.
Residents hit hard
Protesters have vowed to continue with regular demonstrations until the YESB lowers the rates.
One of the protesters, Nyein Nyein Aung from Yangon’s Alone township, said the new rates would hit many of the city’s residents hard.
“We ordinary workers have to work a lot, but we only earn a little. We are in more trouble [now] because the government increased the electricity prices,” she said.
Under the new price scheme, households that use more than 100 units of electricity will pay 50 kyats [U.S. $0.05] per unit, instead of the regular rate of 35 kyats [U.S. $0.03], according to the Myanmar Eleven Media group.
Most families in the country use well over 100 units per month and will be affected by the hike, it said.
YESB managing director Myint Aung said the board had notified customers of the price hike on their regular bills one month in advance of the change.
As the Ministry of Electricity struggles to expand service to a greater share of the population, local authorities like the YESB cannot afford to keep prices any lower if they are going to cover production costs, he said.
“Only 30 percent of people in Myanmar have electricity, and the other 70 percent have none,” he said.
“Only if that 30 percent pays the proper price can we [work on] delivering electricity to the other 70 percent,” he said, saying that the ministry was aiming to reach half of the population in 2015-2016.
The protests follow similar candlelit marches held in cities across Myanmar last May over electricity blackouts that were the country’s largest demonstrations in years.
Thousands of residents in Monywa, Mandalay, Yangon, and other cities—some of them demanding to know why the country was exporting electricity to neighboring China while people in Myanmar were short on electricity—staged more than a week of before authorities restored more regular supply.
Pace of change
Tin Oo, a member of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, said this week’s protest over electricity charges highlighted the slow change in people’s everyday lives despite recent political reforms.
“Although the government said the nation is having more income from selling natural resources, our country has had almost no development,” he said.
“We have heard that the government will provide more electricity in the future, but the authorities have been talking like this for a long time and nothing has happened,” he said.
President Thein Sein’s Economic Adviser Aung Tun Thet said the government acknowledged it needed to find new ways to improve electricity supply.
“We have to find a solution for having a balance on the delivery of electricity, such as with having delivery not only through the government but also from other private business or from other organizations.”
He urged the public to be patient with Thein Sein’s economic reforms, saying he thought it would be “not long” before most people in the country have electricity.
“I understand people want quick gains. We need to have quick gains and, on the other hand, we need to build a foundation for the long term,” he said.
“The government needs to explain to people why it increases the electricity price,” he added.
Opposition Rakhine Nationalities Development Party lawmaker Ba Shein said the uproar over the price hikes is linked to lingering resentment against country’s former military junta regime.
“Under the previous military government, generals and people close to the generals earned a lot of money using and selling the country’s natural resources,” he said.
“People have a bad feeling about this and these protests are based on those feelings.”
Reported by Kyaw Zaw Win, Kyaw Kyaw Aung, Thin Thiri, and Zin Mar Win for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.