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In darkened Rangoon, Burmese get resourceful

Power is spotty, spurring locals to rig car batteries and use pulleys in lieu of elevators to bring goods up from the street.

By a correspondent / June 3, 2008

Dots of light: Rangoon was dark a week after the cyclone. Four weeks later, power is not fully restored in large areas.



Rangoon, Burma

Unable to read street signs at 8 p.m., a Burmese driver was lost in the darkness somewhere in a western township of his native Rangoon (Yangon). Ghostly figures of people emerged in the headlights, like deer on a mountain road. In the flickering light of passing cars, shoppers milled around a bustling food market, fumbling for money and buying fruit and vegetables sight unseen.

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Four weeks after cyclone Nargis, electricity has not been fully restored to large areas of the largest city in Burma (Myanmar). "It hasn't been fixed, and it might not ever be fixed," says a student, reflecting an often-heard sentiment.

Power went out everywhere for three days after Nargis hit May 2 and May 3, knocking out communications across the south. Since then, government workers have gone door to door in Rangoon, demanding 50,000 kyat (about $50) to turn the lights back on in a home or office, locals say. Many families can't afford to pay that, a sum that is more than their monthly income.

For 10 days after the cyclone, one well-connected family tried to stand down what they jokingly call "the prince of darkness." They implored him to serve his country, not himself, during a time of national mourning. The official said he had no choice, given the scarcity of resources. Low on candles and flashlight batteries, the family gave in, and got enough light to remove mangled trees and repair a roof.

Overwhelmed by a disaster that would challenge authorities in any country, the state appears to lack the resources to restore full power, which has always been on-again, off-again in Rangoon. Local reports say the storm knocked out more than 70 percent of Rangoon's 2,500 factories, including many power stations. The city consumes about half the country's electricity, especially at 500 factories in the Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone, which employ an estimated 120,000 workers. In another zone, one company, MGS Beverages, has been running on costly generators to produce vital drinking water.

Lights equal power

The ability to light up the night shows who has power and money in Rangoon. Near the Rangoon River port, the triple-diamond logo of Mitsubishi oozes red into a working-class neighborhood, where mongrels stalk people in the dark and snap at their heels. In the city center, strings of festive lights emanate from upscale restaurants and hotels, serving a new influx of aid workers.

Above all else, Shwedagon Pagoda, perhaps the most magnificent site in southeast Asia, shines gold upon the blackened city below.