Electricity Bill Boycott Denies Myanmar Military US $1 Billion in Power Revenues Since Coup

Customers say they believe the junta would use the money to maintain power instead of help the nation.
2021.09.15
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Electricity Bill Boycott Denies Myanmar Military US $1 Billion in Power Revenues Since Coup Electricity and energy workers protest the military coup, Feb. 19, 2021.
RFA

Myanmar’s junta has lost some 2 trillion kyats (U.S. $1 billion) in revenue from its military-operated power company since seizing power seven months ago amid a widespread public boycott of the paying of electricity bills, according to the country’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG).

NUG Minister of Finance and Investment Tin Tun Naing said Tuesday that 98 percent of electricity customers in the country’s Yangon region, 97 percent in Mandalay region, and about 80 percent in the country’s remaining states and divisions have been refusing to pay their bills as part of a Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) to protest the junta and its Feb. 1 coup d’état.

“We have a record of the Ministry of Electricity and Energy’s meter bills, and they have failed to recoup about 2 trillion kyats in the last seven months,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“The people need to keep up with this action. I predict that the junta could lose about 2.5 trillion kyats U.S. $1.43 billion) by the end of the year.”

Following its establishment in May, the NUG’s Ministry of Electricity and Energy issued an order exempting all households from paying electricity bills and on June 8 announced that it had also ordered the suspension of payments for commercial entities.

According to a leaked departmental directive issued on Sept. 7 by the junta’s Yangon Region Electric Power Corporation, residents of townships in Yangon region alone were in arrears of more than 281 billion kyats (U.S. $161 million) from June to December 2020.

The junta recently issued a letter of warning ahead of the close of the 2020-21 fiscal year, instructing district and township level offices to discuss overages with customers and cut off power, if necessary, to ensure that they pay their balances on any overdue electricity bills beginning from March 2021.

The directives come after junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, during a May 20 meeting in the capital Naypyidaw, noted that electricity revenues were down and called on the people of Myanmar to pay their bills.

The junta’s Ministry of Electricity and Energy acknowledged in a statement on July 8 that it has had to purchase power from privately owned power plants to make up for shortfalls and warned that it would only be able to supply electricity to the country if the government can earn enough revenue.

The Independent Economists of Myanmar (IEM) reported in July that the ministry’s revenue had dropped by 90 percent since February this year due to the boycott on the payment of monthly meter fees.

The IEM said in a statement that the ministry is currently losing 100 billion kyats (U.S. $57.2 million) a month, with only two percent of customers in Yangon and three percent in Mandalay—the two cities that account for the nation’s highest electricity consumption—making electricity payments in March. 

More than 4,000 employees have been fired from the department, which is now dealing with a shortage of staff, it added.

‘Trying to starve the junta’

Several people told RFA’s Myanmar Service they are taking part in the boycott because they believe the junta would use electricity tariffs to perpetuate military rule and said they would not pay electricity bills until a civilian government is elected.

A resident of Mandalay recently told RFA’s Myanmar Service that he had joined the boycott because he believes the junta would use the money for its own benefit.

“We are trying to starve the junta of vital revenues so it will not be able to function by refusing to pay all taxes,” said the resident, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Income from the electricity sector is definitely a part of the government machinery. What benefit will we get from … paying them?”

Since the coup, security forces have killed 1,093 civilians and arrested at least 6,533, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP)—mostly during crackdowns on anti-junta protests.

The junta says it had to unseat Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government because the party had engineered a landslide victory in Myanmar’s November 2020 election through widespread voter fraud. It has yet to present evidence of its claims and public unrest is at an all-time high.

Last week, the NUG declared a nationwide state of emergency and called for open rebellion against junta rule, prompting an escalation of attacks on military targets by various allied pro-democracy People’s Defense Force (PDF) militias and ethnic armed groups.

A poster calling for participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement on display in Yangon's Kyimyindaing township, April 24, 2021. Citizen journalist
A poster calling for participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement on display in Yangon's Kyimyindaing township, April 24, 2021. Citizen journalist
Infrastructure targeted

Power infrastructure has also been the target of sabotage by the PDF and other armed groups in opposition to the junta.

A July 16 bomb blast in Mandalay’s Pyigyidagun township killed an employee of the Electric Power Corp. and a man waiting to pay his meter bill and injured at least seven people.

The week prior, on July 7, township power offices in Yangon’s Hlaing, Mayangone, Kamayut, South Okkalapa, and Thingangyun townships were targeted in bomb blasts. The Yangon Revolutionary Front claimed responsibility and said the explosions were a warning to the Department of Electricity to refrain from forcing people to pay their bills.

Since then, there have been at least 10 bomb blasts at power offices in Mandalay’s Mogok and Pyigyidagun townships, Yangon’s Lanmadaw township, and Magway region’s Myothit and Yezakyo townships.

A 30-year-old man from Yangon’s South Dagon township told RFA that the explosions had made him too afraid to visit a power office to pay his bill.

“At first, the reason for not paying was in protest of the junta, but later it was because NUG and PDF groups have warned against paying meter bills,” said the man, who also declined to be named.

“There were incidents in Mandalay where two people who went to pay their bills were killed in a bomb blast, so now even those who were not against [the military] dare not go pay their bills.”

An employee of the power corporation said he had to be extremely cautious when distributing meter bills to customers.

“There are no security guarantees provided by the department, so we have to look out for ourselves,” he said, speaking anonymously due to concerns about his safety.

Long term impact

Analysts told RFA that Myanmar’s major cities that account for the nation’s largest share of energy consumption could be severely impacted by the boycott and any subsequent power outages.

“It’s not as simple as people think because electricity and water are basic requirements,” said Aung Phyo, an energy researcher in Shan state’s Kalaw township.

“If a certain situation arises, there will be no money from the people. How can the government prepare a budget without revenue? You need revenue to carry out maintenance and repairs. Without these, factories may have to close. People in urban areas who require a lot of electricity will suffer more.”

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

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