This is the heart of the paradox for countries trying to solve their electricity shortages: Poorer countries with more disheveled electrical grids often prioritize cash flow from exporting power when deciding what to do with their natural resources.

Credit: Morley J Weston

One of the first hints of Myanmar’s coming democratization came in 2009 when President Thein Sein put the Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam project on hold, citing the “will of the people.”

The plan was to have China dam up the Ayayarwady (Irrawaddy) River and its tributaries, which cut down the length of Myanmar. Myanmar would give China 90 percent of the electricity in exchange for the remaining 10 percent, with an option to buy another 20 percent.

Northern Myanmar has some of the worst electrical infrastructure in mainland Southeast Asia, and local indignation for being displaced from their land to primarily power China proved too much for the union government to justify the project.

While the dam project proved too contentious at the time, it is being revisited this year in a series of negotiations between the two countries. Both are eager to get a resolution to the expensive project.

Myanmar’s President Htin Kyaw headed to China to discuss the deal anew, with rumors of the dam being scrapped in exchange for some smaller concessions to China, but the nation is still hungry for electricity – less than 40 percent of people had access to power as of 2014. With a growing budget deficit and an economy experiencing growing pains, the government has been attracted by the prospect of a steady stream of income.

The Laos model

Neighboring Laos is further down the path that Myanmar seems to be reconsidering. Increasingly connected to the rest of ASEAN, the country has become eager to export its hydroelectricity, with export deals set up with every bordering country, as well as nearby Malaysia and Singapore.

Hydroelectric power has even become a de-facto symbol of the country – three banknotes feature hydroelectric dams.

A staggering 70 percent of the nation’s exports are expected to be in the form of electricity in coming decades, and the government is moving into shale gas production to become the self-described “battery of Southeast Asia.”

Electricity is keeping the government afloat, and Laos has even begun to pay off some of its external debts with electricity.

But the lights are not always on at home. Domestic electricity availability has lagged behind those countries it exports to – upwards of 20 percent of Laotian households remain unconnected to the grid.

This is the heart of the paradox for countries trying to solve their electricity shortages. Poorer countries with more disheveled electrical grids often prioritize cash flow when deciding what to do with their natural resources.

Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar all have plans to catch up eventually, but it seems that these nations may slowly move away from expensive hydro power to cheap, contentious coal and oil plants for their own power draw.


Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam have all managed to achieve near-total electrification for their people, but have been less reliant on hydropower than some of their neighbors. They have been hugely successful, though – in 30 years, rural electrification in Thailand went from 10 percent to 99 percent, and Vietnam went from 2.5 percent to 96 percent.

These three nations, with relatively competent governments of vastly different ideologies, have similar energy plans revolving around the import of oil, coal and electricity. Mainland Southeast Asia has a moderate supply of fossil fuels, but has burned through so much of it in recent decades that these countries will become major coal importers to an extent that already have industry rags salivating in anticipation.

Myanmar and Cambodia are following suit with new coal plants of their own. One place to watch is Dawei, a city building a special economic zone in the southern part of Myanmar which will include a long-protested coal power plant intended to provide for local industry.

This power plant will work to address a major complaint of investors in Myanmar: they are often attracted by the cheap labor and lax environmental laws, but factories are often inoperable due to frequent brownouts and power cuts.

Cash and jobs will help Myanmar fill its coffers, but it will be a long time before the country can bring a power line to every village in the hills, regardless of rivers.

A note on sources: Data was gathered from official government sources when possible, and should only be regarded as a general estimate. Maps are for educational purposes only. As many of the islands of Southeast Asia have their own unique problems, they were not mapped for this article, including Indonesia and the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah.

Editor: Edward White