Kicking Sand in their Faces: Foreign Countries, Support for the Revolution, and the Hard Currency Issue

Jon Worthington, (pseudonym) a Myanmar-based contributor, notes the self-serving motivations elicited by the recent currency conversion regulations.

This picture taken on September 3, 2011, shows an illegal money changer exchanging Myanmar kyat bank notes into US dollars in a back alley of the country’s main city and former capital Yangon. Despite a soaring currency that has led Myanmar to call in the IMF, Yangon’s illegal money changers are not short of customers. (Photo credit: Soe Than WIN/AFP via Getty Images)

On July 13, the Central Bank of Myanmar declared that foreign-owned companies would also be subject to its April 2022 requirement to convert their foreign currencies into kyat. This announcement was notable in that it revoked a previous exemption for these companies that was issued in June. Financial regulations that enrich the junta are certainly no cause for celebration. Therefore it is worth looking back at some of the particulars of this saga, to revisit the self-serving attempts of some foreign governments to secure the exemption, especially in light of the devastating effects the currency conversion requirement is having on industries and communities across Myanmar.

The initial regulation stemmed from the State Administration Council’s (SAC) urgent need for hard currency. Having run the economy into the ground, the SAC demanded that any foreign monies entering the country be converted into Burmese kyat within 24 hours, at an exchange rate well below the recognized value.

Since April, the inability to acquire, possess and deal in foreign currency has resulted in severe losses for the local business community, especially for those whose trade involves import and export, where most goods are purchased or sold in hard currency, principally U.S. dollars. Business deficits and added costs have, as usual, been passed on to ordinary people in a market where prices have already doubled, tripled and, in some cases, quadrupled since the shameless coup of February 1, 2021.

Back in April, my attention was drawn to a copy of a letter, dated April 4, 2022, from the Embassy of Japan in Myanmar to the State Administration Council’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). Two days later, on April 6, the Embassy of the Republic of Singapore followed suit with an almost identically worded letter of its own. Both were leaked to the public soon after. The content of those letters was revealing.

The Japanese Embassy letter began as follows:

The Embassy of Japan presents its compliments to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar and has the honour to inform the latter regarding the Notification No. 12/2022 and Directive No. 4/2022 dated 3 April, 2022, issued by the Central Bank of Myanmar.” [Emphasis added.]

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, a compliment is “a remark that expresses approval, admiration or respect.”

I found myself at a complete loss to explain how these embassies could justify the use of the word compliments in relation to an entity seen by the international community as a brutal and illegal military regime that lacks any legitimacy whatsoever in the eyes of the vast majority of the people of Myanmar. In this context, I found the word not only insensitive but repulsive. Almost nineteen months ago, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his underlings cruelly overturned the will of 82 per cent of the voting population of Myanmar, claiming, without presenting proof, that an electoral fraud had been perpetrated. In response, millions of people rose up and took to the streets in angry but peaceful demonstrations. Offended that his usurped authority was being challenged, the General ordered his soldiers to arrest, torture, imprison and kill those who dared to defy him. Unable to contain, much less end, the people’s resistance, his troops went on a rampage, beating, shooting, strafing and bombing terrified civilians, many of whom were forced to flee and cower in the jungle while their homes were looted and torched by soldiers. In light of these atrocities, which continue to this day, what did the Japanese and Singaporean Embassies find that was worthy of their compliments? I am still at a loss.

The same dictionary tells us that honour is “a quality that combines respect, pride and honesty.

Equally objectionable was the Embassies’ use of the word honour to describe their sentiments in communicating with a gang of uniformed thugs and murderers. It conferred upon the SAC an entirely unwarranted impression of legitimacy and conveys toward Min Aung Hlaing a wholly unmerited respect. To me, it was incomprehensible that the Embassies of Japan and Singapore, representing countries whose refined cultures are predicated upon the qualities of respect, dignity and truth, should feel honoured to address an illegitimate, unprincipled military clique. Such language perverts the meaning of the word.

Undoubtedly, the Japanese and Singaporean Embassies did not intend their letters to the MOFA to be made public. But it should come as no surprise that the MOFA might have chosen to leak them for its own benefit, to demonstrate that at least two countries are willing to offer their “compliments” and consider it an “honour” to address the regime, as some kind of perverted “proof’” that the SAC has legitimacy in the international community. We might see this choice of words as routine diplo-speak, but others might see it, politely stated, as patently sycophantic. We are living in volatile times in this country. Speech should be honest, direct, and unambiguous, with no attempt to hide behind political nuance and diplomatic niceties. People have listened to these kinds of meaningless words for more than a year and a half; they are weary and dismissive of such talk and frustrated at its selfish insensitivity.

My dictionary tells me that those who are selfish “think only of their own advantage.”

Beyond the use of poorly chosen words in the Embassies’ April letters are significant issues that went unmentioned, that were hidden. The letters made perfectly clear that the Embassies’ sole goal was to protect the financial interests of Japanese and Singaporean businesses. Seeking an exemption from this onerous, destructive, new regulation, paragraph four of the Japanese letter states, in part:

In this regard, the Embassy of Japan strongly requests the exemption prescribed under paragraph (3) of the Notification No. 12/2022 is applied to all the Japanese companies and all the Japanese official organizations ….

Perhaps they could have added “and let others be damned.

But other countries are not exempt from this criticism, as they were obviously lobbying the junta as well, even if their communications were not made public. On April 21, 2022, The Irrawaddy newspaper reported that “the junta-controlled Central Bank of Myanmar has named those exempt from its controversial regulation that foreign exchange earned by citizens must be converted into kyat at the official rate within one working day.”

Besides exempting foreign diplomats, some international NGOs and airlines, the Bank announced that “foreign direct investments approved by the Myanmar Investment Commission … are also exempted. The Singaporean, Japanese and European Union missions asked the regime to exempt their citizens’ companies and NGOs, saying [the regulations] would impede their ability to trade. Business owned by [Myanmar] citizens and ventures jointly owned with foreigners are not exempt.”

In other words, mutually beneficial arrangements were made so that hard currency continued to flow directly from amoral foreign corporations into the pockets of the generals, while consequent hardships borne by the ordinary citizens of Myanmar were ignored completely. We expect this behaviour of the junta, but important actors in the international community need to imagine other ways of conducting their business.

Prior to sending their letters, the Embassies must surely have known the devastating impact that these new regulations would have on local businesses, and the people of Myanmar in general. But rather than raise that issue with the regime’s MOFA, they decided instead to turn their backs on Burma’s people and focus exclusively on their own companies’ narrow financial interests.

It is worth reminding these governments that the friendly atmosphere in which their countries’ businesses prospered prior to the coup did not come about as a result of anything that General Min Aung Hlaing or his military predecessors had done. Instead, that favourable climate was created largely through decades of tireless effort by State Counsellor, H.E. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy, and the people of Burma, as they struggled for a democratic government free of military involvement. Sadly, those responsible for bringing about such positive changes are now being hunted down, incarcerated, tortured, and murdered at the hands of that same military. And, regrettably, many of the foreign businesses that continue to operate in the country appear much too busy making money to do, or even say, anything about the military’s crimes. Instead, they think only of protecting their bottom lines.

This begs the question whether it would have been too much to ask for the Embassies’ April letters to have included a reference not only to how Japanese and Singaporean businesses, but Burmese people and their businesses, would suffer under these new rules. Would not their profits fall and their workplaces be shuttered too? Maybe even more conspicuously?

I urge all countries that have maintained their involvement in Myanmar to remember that the viability of their local businesses is ultimately dependent on the consent and support of the people, and not on Min Aung Hlaing and his desperate economic policies. I remind all countries and companies conducting financial affairs in Myanmar of this fact, and cite, as evidence, the case of Yangon’s Myanmar Plaza where in November of last year security guards violently manhandled peaceful demonstrators. That incident resulted in a boycott that continues to this day, effectively closing this former, high-end, shopping mall. Greed and selfishness among other businesses will eventually result in the same fate. Power really is of the People.

Under a government that terrorizes, tortures, gang rapes and kills our friends, the true place for a friend is standing together with them. The people of Myanmar are, day after day, subject to the most egregious crimes at the hands of a clique of self-serving generals. I am not in doubt about where the honourable people of Japan and Singapore stand, but I am hard pressed to identify the moral priorities of the Japan and Singapore Embassies and their governments, as well as the E.U. and others that received exemptions.

In an interview given to The Irrawaddy News on April 1, 2022, the National Unity Government’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, H.E. Daw Zin Mar Aung, noted that: 

We record who our friends are and who are sitting on the fence, which will shape our future relations with them. … Some countries want to help but lack the strength. Others have the strength but are too focused on their [own] interests and fail to act decisively. If they want to protect their interests, I urge them to stand by us. … Other countries should boldly stand by us and support our revolution.

One should not underestimate the commitment of the people of Myanmar in their struggle for freedom and basic human rights. This is especially true of the younger generation, which, over the past decade, has become much more politically aware. Ultimately, the people will prevail. The question is, as Daw Zin Mar Aung made abundantly clear in her interview: Who, in the end, will be counted among the friends of the people? Surely it will be those who acted according to our shared universal moral compass, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the people; not the ones who sheltered in their counting houses, playing a calculated balancing game, able, but unwilling, to look beyond their narrow financial interests. 

It was unconscionable that the Japanese and Singaporean Embassies in their April letters, or any embassy at any time, would attempt to explore ways in which to acquire self-serving exemptions from the new monetary regulations while completely ignoring the suffering of the local people. Every moral actor involved in Myanmar should, instead, consider ways to prevent foreign corporations and other businesses from continuing to operate in the country. It is an incontrovertible fact that every offshore entity doing business in Myanmar is, directly or indirectly, funnelling money to Min Aung Hlaing, his cronies and the military, which only helps to perpetuate their indiscriminate brutality.

Exemptions to regulations were solely meant for the benefit of the very companies that try to hide, but will one day face, the undeniable truth that arises from their avarice and indifference toward the local population. The companies that hand over land and building lease payments, rents, taxes, bribes and such to the Burmese military are funding its depravity. The very businesses that the Embassies attempted to protect contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to Min Aung Hlaing’s regime. And where is that money spent? Not on health care or education for Myanmar’s citizens, but to purchase jets that rain death upon them, attack helicopters that strafe farmers tending their fields, artillery shells that destroy the simple homes of harmless villagers who used to dream of better times, and automatic rifles and bullets that are every day used to terrorize and execute those who resist being deprived of their rights.

Money from these same companies is used to feed and clothe the Tatmadaw‘s soldiers as they loot and burn. That same money trains and arms the troops who torture young demonstrators, gang rape women, and imprison people indefinitely. Tell me, please tell me, the name of the CEO who turned in that exemplary financial report, the same guy who paid for the bullet, that one bullet that slammed through the head of Ma Thu Thu Zin, 25 years old, who carried  a message of peace and freedom for all of Myanmar’s citizens.

I cannot celebrate the regime’s latest financial policy reversals, but they should make one thing clear to foreign companies seeking to work in Burma, something that most of its people have known for a long time: This junta is not your friend. It is capricious and self-serving. The only moral response for those seeking to engage is to act in the interests of the people of Myanmar, supporting their efforts and minimizing their suffering. Anything else amounts to kicking sand in their faces.

Jon Worthington (pseudonym) is a contributor based in Myanmar.