By Min Lwin
An announcement that electricity prices in Burma will rise 50 percent in 2012 has sparked alarm among small business-owners and families who claim the government is seeking to profit on the exploitation of the country’s poorest.
The move will see cost per unit for businesses jump from 50 kyat ($US0.05) to 75 kyat, and 25 kyat to 35 kyat for domestic use. What those figures belie however is concern among the many small-scale businesses in Burma that operate out of homes, and which therefore will be charged at the commercial rate.
“It will hurt grassroots people,” said the owner of a teashop in Rangoon. He complained that owners of small businesses, such as tea shops and restaurants, “merely use electricity for light” but that they would “have to pay the commercial fee if they turn on lights”.
The decision to hike electricity prices may have been taken with some trepidation: a sudden rise in the price of fuel four years ago was the key catalyst behind the September 2007 uprising that eventually prompted thousands of Burmese to take to the streets.
It will also redirect attention towards the gross disparity between available power in Burma and the ability of Burmese to access it. Despite having a wealth of gas and hydropower potential, the majority of that output is sold to neighbouring countries such as China and Thailand, leaving 80 percent of the country without regular electricity.
According to Rangoon-based Myanmar Times, the decision stems from a bid by the government to cut its deficit. Deputy Minister for Electric Power 2 Aung Than Oo told the newspaper earlier this month that “unit prices … won’t be enough for us to make a profit. It may just cover the ministry’s costs”.
But locals believe otherwise. The Rangoon teashop owner said that each household had to pay a monthly fee for maintenance of electricity metre boxes that was hurting the finances of poorer families.
“It’s 1000 kyat a month, 1000 kyat from every family inBurma– they are making that profit freely,” he lamented.
While electricity prices on average remain comparatively low in Burma, the majority of the country that struggles for regular power is forced to turn to other sources. The Myanmar Times noted that areas off the national grid paid around 500 kyat per unit for electricity from diesel-powered generators.
China is behind the majority of Burma’s 40-odd hydropower projects and receives the lion’s share of produce. Similarly, the India-backed 1,200 MW Tamanthi dam in northwestern Burma will allow only 20 percent of output to remain in Burma, much of which is destined for the vast Monywa copper mine in Sagaing division.