Power to the people!

For the last week, we’ve been researching various aspects of electricity generation and distribution, and assessing different ways in which Myanmar could substantially increase its electricity supply … in less than a year. The ruling USDA is aiming to eliminate power blackouts in Yangon by April 2014, supposedly in order to improve the foreign investment climate in Yangon. The urgency of the situation is, undoubtedly, heavily influenced by the need for the USDA to be able to show tangible improvement in the quality of life of Myanmar citizens ahead of the coming elections in 2015 in order for them to stand a chance of re-election … and what better way to do that than improve energy access?

Those controlling the diesel market in Yangon have placed their bets on off-grid diesel generators being the answer to Yangon’s energy crisis, and have allegedly already begun hoarding diesel in anticipation of a run on diesel in the near future. Our task was to try to come up with feasible alternatives to diesel generators which, with such a short timeline, was difficult to say the least. We were also asked to draft conceptual roadmaps on a variety of infrastructure project and electricity generation related issues. I worked primarily on compiling a guideline for government officials tasked with appraising infrastructure project proposals, as well as different project financing options (which, needless to say, there weren’t many considering the fact that April 2014 is only 8 months away!)

Energy access is one of the most important, and most political, issues in Myanmar today. Approximately 75% of Myanmar citizens have no access to electricity, despite Myanmar having substantial reserves of oil and natural gas, as well as notable hydropower and solar potential. Without improved energy access, much-needed social and economic reform in Myanmar will not be possible. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the country’s oil and natural gas were signed away to Thailand and China by the previous military regime, who were unable to access crucial foreign exchange in any other way due to the significant international sanctions against the country. The current regime is now under growing public pressure to renegotiate the existing oil and natural gas contracts in order to better provide for Myanmar’s growing energy needs. The Myanmar government has also halted several large-scale hydro projects in the last two years in the wake of public outrage at the fact that almost all (and, in some cases, all) of the power they were to generate was to be exported to China, Thailand or India. Drastic changes to Myanmar’s energy policies are urgently needed, and such policies will need to prioritise the energy needs of Myanmar citizens if social unrest is to be avoided.

This weekend marked the 66th anniversary of the assassination of Bogyoke (General) Aung San and six of his cabinet ministers. Bogyoke Aung San is considered to be the founder of modern-day Burma, and was the father of Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Every day on the way to work, we pass by his house, the same house where Aung San Suu Kyi grew up and where she later spent many years under house arrest. The gate is decorated with a portrait of Bogyoke Aung San and the flag of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which is emblazoned with the peacock, the symbol of the Royal Court of Ava, the once capital of pre-colonial Upper Burma.

better entrance

We took the circle train around Yangon with some work colleagues yesterday, and saw parts of Yangon that we would never have otherwise had the opportunity to see.

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… and we received so many smiles from strangers and waves from playing children!

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Some kids showed off their juggling skills for me, tossing small fruit into the air:

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It was certainly the first train that I’ve been on that does not quite come to a stop at each station – rather it slows right now, and then rocks backwards and forwards gently until it’s time to slowly move on!

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