By Mong Palatino
Massive blackouts have hit several Southeast Asian countries in the past month, causing widespread panic, business losses, and even political controversy.
On May 8, a sudden outage in five power plants in the Philippines plunged 40 percent of Luzon Island into darkness, including Metropolitan Manila. Meanwhile, on May 21, mysterious lightning allegedly affected power transmission in Thailand, triggering the kingdom’s “biggest blackout ever” in its 14 southern provinces.
The following day, a crane error knocked out a major transmission line in Vietnam, immediately causing a ten-hour blackout across 22 provinces in the nation’s south. Affected cities included Vietnam’s southern commercial hub, Ho Chi Minh City, and Phnom Penh in neighboring Cambodia.
Three weeks after the Luzon blackout, Philippine energy officials admitted that they are still clueless as to what caused the power plants to malfunction. But at least they clarified that a total of 14 plants conked out during the unforgettable day of darkness.
Meanwhile, the Thai blackout inconvenienced eight million residents and was the country’s worst power interruption in 30 years. According to the Federation of Thai Industries, the resultant economic damage could reach 10 billion baht.
In Vietnam, the blackout affected a third of the country and was said to be the first large-scale power breakdown in 100 years. Cambodia suffered, too, because its power supply is partly provided by Vietnam.
Even if these blackouts were not connected to each other, they remind us that in the age of tablets and smartphones, governments that fail to deliver an uninterrupted power supply will quickly find themselves bombarded by angry comments from even the most apolitical of citizens – especially netizens. Further, politicians must answer not only persistent questions about the causes of blackouts; they must also debunk conspiracy theories – especially those that seem credible.
In the case of the Philippines, the power went off just a few days before the scheduled midterm polls, which led some to suspect that that unusual blackout could be a rehearsal to stage systematic electoral fraud. Indeed, power interruptions were reported on election day, but they seem to have been isolated cases.
Meanwhile, in Thailand, the blackout was concentrated in the south where Muslim rebels have been waging an armed insurgency since 2004. This fact prompted many residents to fear that the power outage could have been a prelude to an intense military attack. Soldiers were dispatched to assuage the public’s fear.
Some academics have taken another view, asserting that the blackout was a ploy by the government meant to influence public opinion in favor of building coal power plants in areas where there is strong community resistance to such projects. In the aftermath of the blackout, public opinion favors the resignation of the energy minister.
The blackouts, accidental or not, were too big to ignore and these should force Southeast Asian governments to review their power infrastructure. It is interesting that during the Luzon blackout, the proposal to use the Philippines’ mothballed nuclear plant was revived, triggering a lively debate about the advantages of harnessing the country’s renewable energy potential.
Finally, Cambodia must brainstorm other ways to generate power since it was already experiencing severe power cuts in recent months. The government needs to think of a fast solution before “powerless” citizens take to the streets and demand reliable electricity.
Officials in Phnom Penh – and the whole region for that matter – should learn from the experience of Burma, where protests arose in its major cities during a power shortage crisis exactly a year ago.