NAYPYITAW -- A recent village tour by Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss Myanmar's peace process doubled as a checkup on the country's electrification progress, signaling the de facto leader's determination to expand the power grid.
Hundreds of residents of the Mandalay Region village of Myaytaingkan lined an unpaved road on Monday morning, waiting hours to welcome the state counselor. Many households in the village of 1,242 support themselves by growing rice and cotton or weaving cloth with simple equipment.
Upon arriving, Suu Kyi visited an electric facility introduced in March to adjust voltage, making it possible to send power from a feeder line to some 250 homes. "Electrification is a central element of our government's commitment to building a peaceful and prosperous future for all our people," she said.
She also stopped at a plant that now uses motor-driven looms to weave colorful cloth. Since access to the grid has lowered power costs, compared with private generation, 10 family-run plants have reportedly introduced a total of 63 motorized weaving machines.
Though the main purpose of the visit was ostensibly to solicit feedback on the government's peace efforts, Suu Kyi told the residents: "I chose to come to this village because it just recently got electricity," adding that she wanted to "know the difference in the situation before and after you got electricity."
The government started reaching out to the public on the peace issue in December; the meeting in Myaytaingkan was the fifth in the series. The idea is to exchange views on conciliation among Myanmar's ethnic groups -- a top priority for Suu Kyi's government.
But as Myaytaingkan's population is predominately Burmese, the village is removed from ethnic tensions, making it a less-than-obvious choice. Of the previous four discussion rounds, one was held in Panglong, Shan State, which is a symbol of ethnic bridge-building in the past. The three others were held in Naypyitaw, the capital.
Suu Kyi's real mission seems to have been to promote the electrification of villages.
This signals a sharper policy focus. In the past, the state counselor's statements on economic policy were generally limited to job creation, according to an adviser who accompanied her on the visit. But recently she has begun to stress the importance of improving power facilities and roads.
"We must accord priority to electrification in line with development of transportation and job creation," she said in a speech in March, which marked the first anniversary of her government.
While only 38.54% of households in Myanmar have access to electricity, the government plans to raise the ratio to 100% by 2030.
The government, however, has yet to delineate a clear electrical power policy -- especially when it comes to securing the stable sources that are indispensable for industrialization.
Although coal-fired generation is relatively inexpensive, residents in areas that would be affected tend to strongly oppose it, due to environmental concerns.
Tun Naing, the deputy minister for electricity and energy, joined Suu Kyi on the visit to Myaytaingkan. He said Myanmar "has enough possibilities to produce electricity from hydro and gas-fired [plants]," and that the government would "highly prioritize this kind of power generation" because of the lighter environmental burden. Coal remains an option, he said, but only "for future power generation."