This is an opinion editorial by Win Ko Ko Aung, a McCourt Scholar for Georgetown University’s Data Science for Public Policy program and a survivor of Myanmar’s 2021 military coup.
As the 2024 U.S. Presidential election campaign kicked off, one of the candidates, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., took to Twitter to express his support for Bitcoin. In a tweet, he stated that “Bitcoin has been a lifesaver for people’s movements around the world, particularly in Burma.”
Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a country located in Southeast Asia, bordering China, India, Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh. The country has stunning natural beauty, including untouched beaches, vast forests and a rich culture of Buddhism. Despite these attractions, Myanmar has been tortured by the world’s longest civil war, which has been ongoing for more than 70 years, since it achieved independence in 1945. The country has also experienced multiple military coups throughout its history, leading to political instability and economic turmoil. Additionally, the government has a history of demonetizing the local currency, and there have been frequent banking crises.
One of Myanmar’s most notable instances of demonetization occurred in 1987, leading to the historic “8888 Uprising.” On September 5, 1987, the military dictator Ne Win announced the demonetization of Myanmar’s 25, 35, and 75 kyat notes without providing prior notice or replacing them for citizens. At that time, these notes accounted for 80% of the circulation in the economy. Previous demonetization efforts in 1964 and 1985 had compensated noteholders, making this move in 1987 especially unexpected and devastating for the people of Myanmar. The choice to demonetize these particular, odd denominations sparked significant speculation, as they were believed to hold special status. It is widely held that Ne Win, who was highly superstitious, considered these numbers to be propitious both for the country and himself on a personal level.
Myanmar’s transformation era commenced with the visit of U.S. President Barack Obama to the country in 2012, followed by its first civilian election in 2015, which marked a significant milestone in the country’s path toward democracy. However, the 2021 Myanmar military coup has set the country back by a decade. The military’s seizure of power in February 2021 has sparked widespread protests and violence across the country, with thousands of people taking to the streets to demand the release of detained political leaders, including the State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint and the restoration of democracy.
But following the military coup in February 2021, the military has brutally cracked down on civilians who are protesting against the regime. Reports indicate that the military has resorted to extreme measures to suppress dissent, including shooting protesters on the spot and arresting individuals, some of whom have been found dead the following day. The military junta has also taken steps to silence activists and journalists who have spoken out against the coup on social media by freezing their bank accounts, making it difficult for them to access their funds and personal savings. These actions have led to widespread condemnation from the international community and have raised concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in Myanmar.
A source from ANTS, a group that raises funds for the democracy movement in Myanmar, revealed to me that many of their members and their friends had their bank accounts frozen by the military regime since they started fundraising efforts in October 2021. These efforts have also led to the arrests and questioning of the family members of activists. In response to the situation, a 22-year-old activist from ANTS told me, “To overcome getting their bank accounts frozen, ANTS changed its fundraising strategy to take bank information privately and instruct donors to write online shopping payment in the note section to reduce the risk of exposure.”
Assisting resistance groups in Myanmar poses a significant danger for individuals irrespective of social hierarchy. Even a donation of less than $10 to these groups has led to ten years of prison sentences for some individuals. In one instance, a well-known jeweler in the Mandalay region was arrested for allegedly supporting the resistance, resulting in the seizure of his assets, including properties, businesses and an astounding 193 tons of raw jade valued at approximately 12 billion kyat (equivalent to roughly $5.7 million).
Alternatives, But Not Solutions
Furthermore, the group revealed that they have explored alternative digital payment options such as NUGPay, a pilot digital currency platform launched by Myanmar’s parallel government, the National Unity Government (NUG). However, as one of their members explained, “Our donors are hesitant to use the platform because it requires opening a bank account with an agent who is either inside Myanmar or outside of Myanmar. Who can guarantee that it is purely safe for the agent and users in terms of data security? It looks like having a double risk than using the traditional banking system.”
But NUGPay, a digital currency platform built on the open-source Stellar network, has faced concerns over data security from many people.
As of May 28, 2023, the Stellar blockchain had recorded 26,950 trustlines using the platform. However, the mobile app Exxon Film Investment — which allegedly enticed users with interest-yield incentives — had managed to scam more than 30,000 people in Myanmar, creating a number of users who are now discouraged from exploring digital currencies like Bitcoin that exceeds the entire user base of NUGPay, highlighting the challenges of ensuring the security of digital financial transactions in Myanmar.
“I think from my experience, many local young people still do not believe in the potential of digital currency,” Feliz, the founder of Myan Crypto, a local crypto educational community, told me. “It is still skeptical in our community. Not to mention senior citizens.”
He added, “Many people in our community came to the Bitcoin and crypto trading industry because they are kind of rich in cash but they don’t know what to do in this economic fallout.”
Regarding NUGPay, Feliz expressed concerns about its limited adoption, saying, “I think the problem of NUGPay is limited adoption. You can’t use it as a currency outside of the revolution group. I think it needs widespread adoption everywhere to make it as an effective currency. Even some people who trade bitcoin and crypto don’t use or hesitate to use the NUGPay due to its limited acceptance. Even (a) user not under military reach doesn’t know what to use NUGPay for other than supporting the resistance.”
How Bitcoin Can Help Those Resisting The Military In Myanmar
But Bitcoin could serve as a better alternative for those in Myanmar who are being cut off from traditional banking services or fear currency devaluation.
Research conducted by the Bitcoin Myanmar Initiative shows that, while the value of the kyat has fallen by over 35% since the military coup, the price of bitcoin has doubled in the same period. Prior to the coup, the price of 1 BTC was approximately 500 million kyat, but it is hovering around 1 billion kyat on Binance’s peer-to-peer exchange as of this writing.
“We believe that the adoption of bitcoin and other digital currencies in Myanmar will be a gradual process, given the current economic environment and the fragile risk tolerance of the majority of people,” a representative of the Bitcoin Myanmar Initiative told me. “However, we see the potential for growth due to the country’s previous experiences with technology leapfrogging. With a smartphone penetration rate of 78% and only 36% of the population having a bank account, many people in Myanmar are looking for an alternative to traditional banking. By promoting a form of currency that no one can control, we aim to help people reclaim their property rights in a digital way and unleash themselves from the military regime’s monetary policy. We believe that it’s just a matter of time before more people in Myanmar recognize the benefits of Bitcoin.”
Highlighting another powerful example of how Bitcoin can help those in Myanmar in “Check Your Financial Privilege,” author Alex Gladstein wrote that:
“As a personal example, someone reached out to me at the beginning of the Myanmar revolution in February 2021. They wanted to provide aid to the democracy movement, but the banking system was practically shuttered, and there was no easy way to wire dollars. After doing some digging, we were introduced to an aid worker-turned-activist who was also a Bitcoin user. He could easily accept a donation, save it in BTC, and then sell it on the peer-to-peer markets when he needed to spend the collapsing local kyat currency on goods. An address was sent over Signal, and a gift was made in minutes. No barriers, no middlemen, and no possibility for corruption along the way. It is just one small example, but it is a glimpse of what the future could hold.”
This is a guest post by Win Ko Ko Aung. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.