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Catholic village gets electricity as Myanmar waits

Efforts to link millions to national grid move slowly, but access to power is changing lives in Kayah State

Catholic village gets electricity as Myanmar waits
Pho Reh, 34, watches television at his parents' home in Daw Ta Da village in Demoso township, Kayah State in August, 2017, while nursing a child. (Photo M. Coyne)
 
 
John Zaw and Michael Sainsbury, Demoso
Myanmar

December 15, 2017

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In June, Catholic villagers from the remote village of Daw Ta Da in Myanmar's mountainous and sparsely populated eastern Kayah State saw poles being raised and electric cables being strung, giving them access to the national electricity grid for the first time.

Pray Reh, a 37-year-old village leader, said the villagers are very happy to get electricity in their lifetime.

For generations, residents of the village had the daily rhythm of waking up with the sun and going to bed after dark. Diesel generators were used for religious celebrations and solar panels or candlelight was used for basic lighting purposes such as students attending school.

Life has now changed. On a sunny afternoon in August, most people went to their maize and rice plantations to work. Others stayed behind at home to cook, some making use of their electric-powered rice cookers that are now connected to the newly built network.

About 400 Catholics live in the 80 households in the verdant village. Another resident, Kay Reh, 37, said they paid 100,000 Kyats (US$ 74) to access the electricity and 50,000 Kyats (US$ 37) for service charges related to wiring.

"It is convenient for families as they can cook rice, students can study easily at night and we watch TV such as Korean soap operas or Myanmar movies at night. It costs about 2,000 Kyats (US$ 1.50) per month for electricity usage," Kay Reh told ucanews.com.

While it is convenient and affordable for most villagers, a third of the village's 80 households can't afford access to electricity, according to Pray Reh.

In neighboring Daw Ta Wi village in Demoso township, Nan Mu, a 70-year-old elderly Buddhist woman said she was thrilled that power had finally arrived.

"I use it for cooking rice, lighting at night and watching television and I don't need to use the solar panels that we have used for years," Nan Mu, a mother of nine, told ucanews.com.

More than 50 percent of Kayah State currently lives without electricity. Across the nation only about 38.5 percent of Myanmar's 51 million people have access to electricity though those who are connected experience frequent outages. Blackouts are common in all areas including downtown Yangon, the country's biggest commercial center and former capital.

Kay Reh, 37, ethnic Kayah is seen in his kitchen at his home in Daw Ta Da village in Demoso township, Kayah State, in August, 2017. (Photo M. Coyne)

 

Neglect under military rule

Sixty years of military rule neglected Myanmar's citizens, especially in remote regions where inhabitants of minority ethnic groups are residing.

Under the Aung San Suu Kyi-led government, major efforts are being made for villages to get electricity.

State Counselor Suu Kyi said in a roundtable discussion with local villagers in central Myanmar in August that her government is trying its utmost to provide electricity to remote towns and villages.

"I know the entire country needs electricity. I don't know about other countries what they do or don't, but here the government and people will have to join hands to find ways to solve the problems," she said.

Suu Kyi's government — which has inherited a myriad of challenges from the military — has identified electricity as one of the pressing issues that the country must manage, which also hinders attracting foreign investors.

But Kayah State has been more fortunate than others. Myanmar's biggest and oldest hydropower project, Lawpita was initiated in the 1950s by the state from the Japanese as part of war reparations. Its plant is situated 20 kilometers east of Loikaw, the state's capital and it provides 24 percent of Myanmar's hydro power, according to the Burma Rivers Networks 

Kayah State is a green remote, under-developed and mountainous region. The main ethnic groups are Kayah, Kayaw and Kayan (also known as Padaung). Nearly 50 percent are Buddhists while Catholic people and Baptists account for 46 percent. Two percent are animists and there are small Hindu and Muslim communities of about 300,000 people.

Agriculture is the economic backbone of the state and three quarters of the population reside in rural areas. The major crops are rice, maize, sesame and groundnuts.

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