Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi held a public roundtable meeting on the country’s peace process in a Mandalay region village on Monday, though residents used the opportunity to question her about the lack of electricity in the area and other issues thataffect their livelihoods.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who is also state counselor and foreign affairs minister, is spearheading peace negotiations with the government military and ethnic armed groups in a bid to end decades-long civil war and foster national reconciliation. She has made the achievement of peace the primary goal of the National League for Democracy government, which has been in power for 16 months. Two rounds of discussions have been held since the talks began almost a year ago, though no significant progress has been made, and rebel militias continue to engage in clashes with the Myanmar army.
Zaw Myint, chief minister of Mandalay region, told Reuters that Aung San Suu Kyi selected Myaetinekan village for her visit because it is situated at the geographical center of Myanmar and is a typical Myanmar village.
The village’s residents and rice farmers belong to the country’s majority ethnic Bamar Buddhist group, Reuters said.
Aung San Suu Kyi told villagers that the peace negotiations, known as the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference, must be a priority for the country.
But the eight village representatives with whom she met were more concerned about issues that are affecting residents’ livelihoods, including the availability of electricity in some areas in and around the village, land grabs, and irrigation problems.
May Than Yee from the area’s Nyaungbin Thar village said of the 250 houses in the village, only 85 have access to electricity.
“The only power source is about 400 to 500 feet away, we have to pay a user fee of 700,000 kyats (U.S. $502), and we have to connect the supply line by ourselves,” she said.
“It’s very unaffordable,” she said. “Some people are getting their power like that, but I’m not yet. It is very disheartening.”
In response, Aung San Suu Kyi said the government is trying its utmost to provide electricity to remote towns and villages.
“I know the entire country needs electricity,” she said at the roundtable discussion. “I just talked to some of your leaders about this issue. I don’t know about other countries what they do or don’t, but here the government and people will have to join hands to find ways to solve the problems.”
Aung San Suu Kyi told the villagers that she would talk to the Ministry of Electricity and Energy about resolving the issue.
During a brief tour of Myaetinekan, Aung San Suu Kyi saw a Japanese-made transformer installed in March to connect the village to the national power grid for the first time, Reuters reported. She also toured weaving factories with machines powered by the transformer.
Only about 38.5 percent of Myanmar’s 53 million people have access to electrical power, though those who do have it experience frequent outages.
The villagers also told Aung San Suu Kyi about instances of local officials illegally appropriating land, a major cause of social tension throughout developing Southeast Asia.
Myaetinekan resident Aung Thway said the village head had cheated some residents by selling their farmland to a third party.
The incident was reported to authorities at the township and district levels, but after they summoned the villagers affected and heard their cases, they failed to issue a fair verdict, he said.
Aung Sang Suu Kyi told Zaw Myint to investigate the issue and ensure that justice is rendered.
The villagers who participated in the meeting also told Aung San Suu Kyi about their difficulties obtaining enough water for their crops through irrigation.
In response, she instructed Zaw Myint to look into the issue.
After the discussions, some well-wishers pledged to contribute 12 million kyats (U.S. $8,600) to make electrical power accessible to all villagers.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s meeting with the villagers is the fourth round-table discussion on peace that she had held with ordinary people since taking office in April 2016.
Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.