Lao citizens are being charged high rates for power usage, with some claiming rates are even higher than before the coronavirus outbreak, despite growing levels of unemployment due to business closings to prevent the spread of COVID-19, sources in the one-party communist state say.
Many are now calling on the Lao government to lower prices for electricity as the country enters its warmest months.
“Although our restaurant was closed last month, I still paid over one million kip [U.S. $111.20], which was the same amount I paid before the pandemic hit. I even unplugged all my refrigerators,” a resident of Luang Prabang city in northern Laos told RFA this week.
“It would be good if [the state company] lowers power prices,” the restaurant owner said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“It would be helpful if the government lowered its prices,” agreed another restaurant owner, speaking to RFA from the capital Vientiane. “My restaurant has been closed for more than a month, and my income is much lower than before.”
“People are not working and have lost their income during this COVID outbreak,” another Vientiane resident said. “The government should lower the price of electricity.”
Meanwhile, a resident of Bokeo province’s Pha Oudom district said his last bill for power was even higher than usual. “Usually, I pay only about 50,000 kip [$5.56] each month. But for April I paid 100,000 kip [$11.11], which was double,” he said.
“Laos has been called the ‘battery of ASEAN, and we have so many dams,’” one homeowner said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “But electricity is more expensive here than it is in the countries that we sell power to.”
Laos and many other Asian countries are on a dam-building spree as they try to harness the power of the Mekong and other rivers. And while the Lao government sees power generation as a way to bootstrap the country’s economy, the projects are still controversial for their environmental impact and financial arrangements.
Higher bills 'normal,' official says
Laos is entering its warmest months now, and it is normal that bills for electric power will be higher, said a high-ranking official of the Vientiane-based Electricite du Laos, the state corporation that owns and operates the former French colony’s power generation, transmission, and distribution system.
“It’s hot during this time of the year,” the official said, speaking to RFA earlier this month. “People use their air conditioners a lot, and this consumes a lot of energy. That’s why the power bills have been so high during this month.”
Laos has the third-lowest price for electricity, at $0.07 per kilowatt-hour, in ASEAN, with only Brunei (at $0.05) and Myanmar (at $0.55) charging less, the official said. By contrast, Singapore charges the region’s highest rate at $0.18 per kilowatt-hour, he said.
Some Lao householders suspect fraud in the higher rates they have been charged, however.
“Many households are experiencing rising power charges,” one Vientiane resident told RFA on April 21.
“This month, they went up from what we usually pay, at about 80,000 kip [$8.90], to about 300,000 kip [$33.36]. I don’t know why. I don’t know how they do their calculations,” he said.
“Everybody is complaining and demanding a reduction of these prices because people are not working during the lockdown,” he added.
Some power company employees in the past have recorded incorrect or inflated amounts of power used by customers, Khen Thepvongsa—head of the power operations department in Vientiane—admitted in an interview with the Lao Pattana newspaper on May 19
Electricite du Laos now has strict measures in place to deal with wrongdoing, though, with a reduction in pay resulting from a first occurrence, followed by termination of employment on a second offense, Khen Thepvongsa said.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Richard Finney.