23 May 2024

“Cryptocurrency” is technical jargon and gibberish to many people, even in this modern age of technological innovation.

While it seemed far more mystical when Bitcoin, the progenitor of encrypted peer-to-peer electronic currency systems, was released in 2009, there are now a plethora of digital or “crypto” currencies.

Many in the modern world are adopting the use of such decentralized currencies. Myanmar saw an unexpected surge in users, not so much due to any perceived potential for a return on investment, but because of great political upheaval.

The Coup

On February 1st, 2021, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military), led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, led a coup d’état which overthrew the civilian elected government, claiming that the 2021 general election was rigged.

For Mr. A, a young man in his 20s, the coup triggered his decision to bet his future on cryptocurrencies. Despite having only been exposed to them at a tech forum in 2018, multiple factors, such as the announcement that Tesla Inc., the huge American electric vehicle and clean energy company, will accept cryptocurrencies as payment and the coup, convinced him it was the right move.

“I knew that the local currency would devalue heavily sooner or later and, even while cryptocurrencies are not adopted on a massive scale, I think will happen. Myanmar leap-frogs technological advances and it could be done. If people can see the potential of a decentralized currency, allowing them to protect their investments better and take part in the global economy, while not having to depend on a corrupt government,  it could bring widespread adoption,” said A.

He says that, despite mostly tech savvy people using digital currencies, it is now much easier to trade or exchange the Myanmar Kyat through an assortment of cryptocurrencies, even NFTs (Non-fungible tokens).

“Crypto is normally not something I would support, because it undermines the Central Bank and enables the black market but, right now, Myanmar doesn’t have much of an economy but, what little there is, is heavily monitored,” said K, an economist who has worked with the public financial sector in Myanmar. He has since managed to flee the country after many of his colleagues were arrested or otherwise detained.

“So, you have three choices. You park all your money in a foreign bank, use digital wallets and crypto or regress to all cash,” said Z.

The ban

Myanmar’s Central Bank banned digital currencies of all forms on May 15th, 2020, long before the coup. The ban includes, but is not limited to, Bitcoin (BTC), Litecoin (LTC), Ethereum (ETH) and Perfect Money (PM) and traders will be prosecuted under extant monetary laws.

Whether there is actual legal power behind such threats or actual arrests made is still up for debate but, what is for sure now is, the junta has been tracking down those who trade large volumes of money.

“What they are mainly afraid of is the funds getting to the NUG (National Unity Government – parallel/shadow government). Despite all their killings, violence and threats, the funds continue to flow to the revolutionaries through a myriad of channels, of which some are cryptocurrencies,” said H, a trader who previously made a living importing goods from China.

He admitted that, at 47, he was less familiar with technology than the younger generation. His ventures in China, however, opened his eyes.

“It is the future. I visited coin mining places in China. I don’t do any of that because the energy needed to continue mining the block chain would mean I would have to siphon power off the grid illegally. I didn’t want to do that to a government I voted for. I would have though, if had known things were going to turn out this way. I slowly began investing in crypto, however, and that has now allowed me to be sheltered from the currency value variations and other difficulties, which my peers are experiencing now. The NUG accepts donations through BTC and other means, while the junta is hot on their heels. A trusted trader I knew was nabbed two months ago because the bank disclosed information about transfers of large amounts of money. There has been no contact since then” said H.

H believes that, despite the junta attempting to crush any form of dissent, the public have been providing supportive funding through digital means, such as watching ads on websites, buying digital lottery tickets produced by the NUG and cryptocurrencies, such as BTC or ETH.

For Mr. A, cryptocurrency and NFT trading is not just “magic internet money” or a get-rich-quick scheme for those with the first-mover’s advantage.

“It is a weapon. It is a beacon of hope against a corrupt leadership. People are becoming more aware of how things work and I hope that, soon, a fair number will realise that so much more could be done, including putting in the effort to overthrow the military government, which the majority of the population despises.”