WUNDWIN, Mandalay — Nearly one month before State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visited Wundwin Township in Mandalay, Daw Mya San Yi was already excited for the chance to make a request to her.
The State Counselor was set to attend an event billed as peace talks with rural villagers on August 7.
Daw Mya San Yi’s request was simple—to have electricity, which she had dreamed of for years. And she believed that electrifying her village in the coming years would be a possibility, if she could just talk to Myanmar’s de facto leader.
However, it is not that her entire village lacks electricity. Villagers have formed a committee to supply electricity on a self-reliant basis – a system widely applied in rural areas in which the electricity ministry installs transformers, cables and meter boxes, and concerned villages assume the cost.
Of 250 households in Daw Mya San Yi’s village, 85 already had electricity at the time of the State Counselor’s visit, but she belonged to the group that went without.
Many households had already paid varying amounts for access to electricity. Daw Mya San Yi paid 150,000 kyats, but she could not afford to pay the balance – 550,000 kyats plus the price of cables.
So, she went to the village administrator’s home to see if he could get her a seat at the State Counselor’s event.
“He told me he could, but then later said our village only got 10 seats, and I wouldn’t be given one. I was upset because I wanted to talk to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” she told The Irrawaddy on Monday.
So, instead of going to the talk in Myay Taing Kan village, she went to a farm in her village. She brought tea to the farmers and then went home to watch the talks on TV. She heard the State Counselor talk of electricity and peace.
“Then, I heard Mother Suu tell the crowd to be quiet and that she would allow them to speak after the event,” Daw Mya San Yi recounted.
Hearing this, she decided to go to Myay Taing Kan village, and found someone to take her on his motorbike.
The talk was not yet over when she got there, and a few people in the crowd told her to wait, as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had promised to allow villagers to speak after the event.
And she kept her word, saying she would allow about three people from the crowd to speak.
Daw Mya San Yi ran onto the stage. And luckily, she was the first to speak to the State Counselor.
“I’m Ma Mya San Yi from Nyaungbintha-Se village. I heard on TV that outsiders would be allowed to speak after the event so I came running at the risk of my life,” said Daw Mya San Yi, which drew a round of loud applause.
“Mother Suu, there are 250 houses in our village, 85 of them have electricity, and the remaining houses are around 400 to 500 feet away [from the lampposts used to link overhead cables]. We have to buy 400 to 500 feet of cable, and pay 700,000 kyats. We can’t afford it. I’ve paid 150,000 kyats,” she told the State Counselor.
As she talked about people who have been able to start businesses thanks to the electricity in the village, she broke down in tears.
“We still don’t have electricity. I am sad, mother. Please solve this. Not immediately. But please help us get electricity in a year or two. I would be satisfied if you could do that,” she told Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi listened and then talked privately with Mandalay Region Chief Minister U Zaw Myint Maung for a few minutes.
“I know that electricity is needed across the entire country. We have to find solutions to solve these problems together with people,” the State Counselor said.
She did not make immediate promises, but said that her government would work to find ways to help villages that had gone down the self-reliant path.
But Daw Mya San Yi’s hopes were realized. After the talks were broadcast on state media, two donors contributed 10 million kyats each, making it possible for the remaining houses to get electricity.
“I didn’t think it would happen immediately. I would have been happy if it took a couple years. I just asked for it because I cannot afford 700,000 kyats,” she said.
Around 50 households who already paid 150,000 kyats were told they would get hooked up to electricity first with the donor contributions, said Daw Than Aye of Nyaungbintha-Se village.
Across Myanmar, there are many villages like Daw Mya San Yi’s that still do not have electricity. According to the Ministry of Electricity and Energy, only some 30,000 of more than 63,000 villages had access to electricity as of May.
The day after the local peace talks, 17 officials from the Wundwin Township electricity department went to Nyaungbintha-Se Village.
“They said that they had received an order from upper-level authorities and that we would get electricity. I was so happy; I even treated them to fried noodles,” Daw Mya San Yi said.