Daily blackouts in Myanmar disrupt livelihoods of rural, urban dwellers

Daily power outages across Myanmar have had a devastating effect on business owners as well as ordinary citizens in recent months. 

Since October, residents of nearly every township have endured power shortages of one form or another, including in Myanmar’s major urban centers, and sources told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the outages occur at random.

Some observers question whether the junta is using the blackout to punish its opponents, but the country’s electric ministry said high gas prices and damage to the nation’s network of power lines are to blame.

Residents say the one thing they know is that blackouts have become a much more common occurrence and have been forced them to invest in costly alternatives such as generators to meet their daily power needs.

A restaurant owner in Ayeyarwady region’s Myaungmya township said that businesses had suffered because of the blackouts.

“We currently endure power outages in Myaungmya day and night, every day,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“It happens between seven and 12 times a day on average, so all businesses that rely on electricity are having a hard time. People with generators can carry on working but those without them just have to wait for the power to come back.”

The restaurant owner added that prices for basic foodstuffs that require cold storage have skyrocketed because of the extra costs to use generators.

The owner of a grocery store in Ayeyarwady’s Nyaungdon township said he had to buy a generator to keep his business operating.

“There’s never a day that passes without a power outage. We don’t know whether the power cuts are scheduled for each ward or not,” he said.

“It can happen anytime of the day, and we never know what time it will come back on, so people who can afford it have to buy generators to run things like welding tools, ice-making machines and glass cutters.”

The grocer, who also declined to be named, said the price of power generators, which used to be around 300,000 kyats (U.S. $170) each, had recently risen to more than 500,000 kyats (U.S. $280) because of the high demand.

Urban centers affected

The current outages are not only affecting small towns and rural areas of the country, but also large cities such as the commercial capital Yangon and Myanmar’s second largest urban area, Mandalay, which are densely populated and home to foreign embassies and large companies.

One businessman in Yangon told RFA that blackouts could “sometimes last half a day or even a whole day,” causing severe disruptions for his cast iron and aluminum works.

“We can’t do anything but just sit and wait until it comes back on because we don’t have a generator,” he said, adding that he would be forced to find one if the situation was not resolved.

A Mandalay-based private instructor who teaches children online said her classes are interrupted by outages daily.

“There’s not a single day without a power failure. Sometimes it takes three-and-a-half to four hours for the power to come back, so I have to keep power banks and an extra laptop to do my coaching work,” she said, adding that she expects the situation to become worse during the summer, when heat waves put additional strain on the electric grid.

But the instructor said that residents are increasingly wondering whether the junta is turning off access to power to punish its opponents, many of whom have taken part in nationwide protests and boycotts against its rule.

“Some people are saying the junta deliberately cuts the power supply because people were not paying their power bills and it is trying to teach them a lesson,” she said.

She noted that in the past, residents were able to contact the main power supplier — Electric Power Corporation — in case of an outage, but there is no longer anyone answering service calls.

Cause of blackouts

The junta’s Ministry of Electricity said in a statement on Jan. 6 that power generation has declined nationwide due to rising global gas prices, the renovation of a major domestic gas project, and the destruction of power transmission towers. The statement said that the public could expect “temporary power outages” between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. daily.

Attempts by RFA to contact junta Deputy Information Minister Zaw Min Tun for comment on the accusations went unanswered on Wednesday.

However, an official from the Ministry of Electricity in the capital Naypyidaw, who did not want to be named for security reasons, dismissed claims that the power outages were being used by the junta to punish opponent.

Instead, he suggested they are the result of the ministry’s failure to pay private electricity providers amid the government’s broader mismanagement of the economy, as well as the destruction of power supply towers by anti-junta armed groups. The source warned that the situation would likely worsen.

Of Myanmar’s approximately 11 million households, around 7 million have access to electricity. The country’s power grid had improved steadily during the 10 years of civilian rule prior to the Feb. 1, 2021 coup, and sources have told RFA they expect it will worsen dramatically under military rule.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.