Pay your power bill, Myanmar soldiers say, or pay with your life
By Richard C. Paddock
The schoolteacher had just gotten out of bed when four Myanmar army soldiers pounded on her door. Her electricity payment was overdue, they said, and ordered her to pay it immediately at the government power company office.
The teacher, Thida Pyone, asked what would happen if she refused. “One soldier pointed his gun at me and said, ‘If you choose your money over your life, then don’t go pay the bill,’” she recounted.
She was so frightened, she got goose bumps. She grabbed her money and went straight to the payment office, not even taking time to change out of her yellow and pink pajamas.
After the Myanmar military seized power in a Feb. 1 coup, millions of people walked off their jobs in protest. Millions also began refusing to pay for electricity, an act of civil disobedience aimed at depriving the junta of a crucial source of revenue.
Experts doubt that these efforts alone can bring down the regime. But 11 months after the coup, the military appears so desperate for cash that its soldiers have begun acting as debt collectors.
For weeks, residents say, troops have been going door to door alongside power company workers to extract payments in major urban areas, including the nation’s two largest cities, Yangon and Mandalay.
The soldier’s threat to Thida Pyone was part of a wider, violent crackdown as the regime has tried to crush street protests and the civil disobedience movement. Soldiers and the police have killed at least 1,466 civilians, including nearly 200 who died during torture at interrogation centers, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. At least 85 young protesters were shot in the head at demonstrations, the rights group said.
The coup and subsequent crackdown also threw the nation’s economy into crisis as millions left their jobs in protest, including doctors, engineers, bank staff, power company employees and railway workers. Most have not returned.
The economy had previously been projected to grow in 2021, but with the coup and the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Bank estimates that it contracted by more than 18% instead.
The United Nations Development Program predicts that urban poverty rates will triple by early 2022, according to a December report based on a survey of 1,200 households.
“A slide into poverty of this scale could mean the disappearance of the middle class — a bad omen for any rapid recovery from this crisis,” Kanni Wignaraja, director of the agency’s bureau for Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement accompanying the report.
Myanmar’s currency, the kyat, has plummeted since the coup to less than half its previous value, driving up prices for imports such as fuel and cooking oil.
Cash remains in short supply as people, lacking confidence in the banks, hoard kyat. Banks are no longer stocking even a handful of ATMs. Customers who want their money must obtain a token online or make an appointment by phone; both are almost impossible to do. Most people get cash from their accounts by transferring it to a broker and paying a commission of as much as 7%.
After a previous military regime began opening the country in 2010, Myanmar saw economic growth with increased international investment and a higher standard of living. The coup has undone this progress.
“In the past 10 months, the country has lost all its gains from the past 10 years,” said Hein Maung, an economist based in Myanmar. “The cost of doing business has increased substantially. There is a booming informal economy of drug trafficking, illegal logging, money laundering and other illegal businesses.”
A decline in electricity payments, as well as tax revenues and international development assistance, has cost the regime about one-third of the revenue that the previous government used to receive, he said.
Many public services, like health care and schools, are barely functioning, and the regime has halted many longer-term programs reliant on state funding, such as infrastructure projects.
Myanmar’s shadow opposition government, the National Unity Government, has urged the public to stop paying for electricity. In September, it said that 97% of people in Mandalay and 98% in Yangon had done so, costing the regime $1 billion by that point.
Ko Si Thu Aung, 24, who sells vintage clothes online, had not paid his bill since February in support of the civil disobedience movement. But on Christmas Day, soldiers came to his home and cut the power line. After two days without electricity, he decided he had no choice.
“If there is no electricity, I can’t work,” he said as he stood in line with more than 300 others waiting to pay their bills at the office of the Mandalay Electricity Supply Cooperative. “I feel bad because our money will become bullets to kill people.”
He said he would atone by donating more than the amount of his electricity payment to the People’s Defense Force, an anti-regime militia formed since the coup.
Opponents of the regime have also targeted lesser revenue sources, such as motor vehicle payments, by not renewing driver’s licenses or car registration. Soldiers have begun trying to collect more money by stopping drivers at random and inspecting their documents.
And revenue from the state-run lottery dropped to nearly zero after most of the public stopped buying tickets.
Opponents also have mounted a boycott against companies owned by the military, which operates two vast conglomerates with more than 120 subsidiaries. Among those affected are military-owned beer producers, banks, a cigarette manufacturer, tourist hotels, an insurance company and the cellphone company Mytel, a joint venture with Vietnam’s defense ministry.
In Mandalay, where the power goes out every day for hours at a time, the regime’s strong-arm campaign to collect electricity payments began in October.
Power outages were common before the coup but recently have become longer and more frequent. The energy ministry blames the outages in part on a fourfold increase in the price of imported natural gas.