Currents of fear: Yangon struggles to modernize as electrocution deaths rise

 

Words by Feliz Solomon

Photos by Aung Naing Soe

YANGON – One evening in late May, a 10-year-old boy named Myat Ko Ko smiled into his grandmother’s cell phone camera and snapped a quick selfie as his mother rested contentedly in the background. His grandmother, Daw Mya Mya Aye, will never delete that photo, taken just a few hours before the boy stepped outside and never came back.

Daw Mya Mya Aye teared up as she recounted what happened next. Myat Ko Ko, her only grandchild, had wandered out while his mother was doing some shopping. Just a few doors from their apartment, he slipped and fell into an open drain, dying almost immediately after he tried to clutch a utility pole on his way down.

The old metal column sent a fatal current through his tiny body.

“I heard a boy fell in the drain,” Mya Mya Aye said, passing us a stack of newspapers laden with photos of the child’s untimely funeral, “but I didn’t think it could be our boy.” When she pushed through the crowd of neighbors and lifted his head, she knew it was him, and she fainted. His mother, Mya Mya Aye’s only child, was so distressed that a few days later she left home and joined a nunnery.

Myat Ko Ko’s grandmother shows the selfie taken hours before her grandson’s death.

“I hope this doesn’t happen to anyone again,” Mya Mya Aye said. “I lost two things: my daughter… and the boy.”

Today, their street in Yangon’s Hlaing Township doesn’t look too hazardous; within a week of the boy’s death, their ward was outfitted with brand new concrete pillars, state-of-the-art transformers and neatly strung cables. But up until the tragic accident it looked like many other parts of the city, with tangled clusters of wire dangling dangerously above pools of standing water as the monsoon rains kicked in.

There had already been minor problems near the site of the incident, which had been reported to the electrical department but not fully resolved, according to interviews with local residents. Just a few days prior, Mya Mya Aye said that a few people in nearby houses had been shocked inside their homes, but that no one was injured. After they informed the department of electricity, staff came by to inspect the area and perform some repairs, but it wasn’t until after the boy had died that the ward’s equipment was completely replaced. The incident, which happened less than a week after three separate electrocution deaths in Yangon on a single day, was a bruisingly public failure for a municipal government eager to shed its antiquated image.

“We feel so, so sorry for this boy and his family,” said Khin Thapyae Nu, a managing engineer at the Yangon Electricity Supply Corporation, a state-owned enterprise and Yangon’s sole energy provider. She looked genuinely pained to recount the incident, wincing solemnly and vowing that the company would try its best to prevent any further tragedies.

That will be easier said than done.

The pole where the fatal incident in Hlaing occurred.

High hopes have been placed on Myanmar’s new government, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Her party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory in elections last year, unseating a military-backed government and becoming the country’s first fairly elected leadership after decades of authoritarian rule.

Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and commercial capital, suffered years of neglect under the country’s successive military regimes. Much of its stunning colonial architecture is in shambles, and its labyrinthine roads collect pools of filthy rainfall during the summer. The city’s infrastructure is in dire straits, and the country lags far behind its more developed neighbors in delivering services such as clean water, power and sanitation.

Only about one third of the country’s households had electricity at the time of a 2014 census, but the government has announced an ambitious plan for universal access by 2030. While connectivity is growing nationwide, services in the commercial capital are still largely delivered through a dilapidated network of rusty and dangerously outdated equipment. Some of the city’s transformers haven’t been replaced for decades, and in poor areas residents who lack public services have jerry-rigged their own, tapping into power lines with bits of found or stolen cable.

At least six people are known to have died in Yangon due to faulty electrical equipment since late May, but even the YESC admitted that this number is deceptively low. Two of the victims were only 10 years old, and another was an employee of the electrical department who was actually electrocuted while trying to repair the lines. Also alarming was the May 24 death of a teenager on one of downtown Yangon’s busiest intersections, at the corner of Bogyoke and Sule Pagoda roads, when he stepped in a puddle next to a supply column. The day after his death, nothing had been done to warn passersby that the spot could be dangerous.

Local reports have cited police saying that electrocutions happen “almost every day” and claimed more than 100 lives in 2015. U Saw Win Maung, YESC’s general manager, told Coconuts Yangon that the death toll has risen over the past four years as more people connect to the grid and purchase home appliances.  

“There are three main problems, the first is the budget,” Saw Win Maung said in the company’s modest Ahlone Township offices. Even a one-block stroll from the company compound was enough to find messy nests of wires hovering between the tenements on Lower Kyeemindaing Road. The YESC came under harsh public criticism last month when a representative told reporters that they couldn’t afford to fix the problem, which has become so extreme that some people are frightened to walk on soaked city streets.

The offices of the Yangon Electricity Supply Corporation.

Saw Win Maung said that the costs of cable upgrades are currently carried by the customer, as the YESC budget of 17 billion kyats, $14.4 million, does not suffice to rewire an entire city of 5.2 million people. A large share of the company’s funds are public, allocated by the Union parliament. Last year, the Asian Development Bank granted Myanmar an $80 million loan for transmission upgrades to be completed by mid-2019, but the YESC says they are still short on funds for material costs. Even if enough money was there, Saw Win Maung said, there aren’t enough qualified electrical inspectors to carry out a timely, high-grade overhaul.

Having acknowledged that the problem has worsened in recent years, the corporation and its parent ministry say they have prioritized key locations for urgent upgrade: schools, markets and densely populated wards. The ministry has already identified “hundreds” of alarming bundles of decades-old cables that need to be replaced. Saw Win Maung didn’t know exactly how many complaints had been submitted about potentially unsafe sites, but sufficed to say he was aware of “a lot of them.”

The other problem is that regulations are weak and public awareness about electrical safety is low. While the number of deaths on the street may be alarming, it is vastly overshadowed by an unknown number of in-home electrocutions, usually caused by cheaply made appliances. As it stands, manufacturers and importers are not held to adequate standards for production materials and safety instructions, Saw Win Maung said. The Ministry of Electricity and Energy has launched safety campaigns in schools and neighborhoods, according to the YESC, but a recent visit to Hlaing Township showed no sign of effective public advocacy. Neighbors said they hadn’t seen any public notices about safety, and while the adjacent pole had been replaced, the open drain remained uncovered.

The city’s residents are also wondering why it took a rash of lives cut short for the government to finally own up to the problem. While the response has been swift – YESC paid for and carried out a full makeover in Hlaing Township within a week of the incident – Myat Ko Ko’s death was the third of its kind this year, according to the township police. When he died, the boy’s family said that authorities from the department of electric power initially dismissed the notion that the pole was the problem, claiming instead that the boy had drowned. Police later determined their drowning theory was false.

“We investigated the cause of his death,” Hlaing Police Captain Kyaw Zaw told Coconuts Yangon. “We confirmed that he died of electrocution.”

Daw Mya Mya Aye graciously accepted YESC’s donation of about $2,300 to cover funeral costs and other expenses, but she is still reeling from the grief of a truncated family tree. She finds some solace in knowing that Myat Ko Ko’s short life ultimately led to better conditions for her entire community, after the equipment was replaced.

“People from the neighborhood are always telling me that they are safer because of my little boy,” she said, her eyes swelling with tears. “If this hadn’t happened, they would not have changed anything.”

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