1 February 2021: Almost everyone in the country woke up in horror to the mounting bad news. An internet blackout and the inability to withdraw cash from ATMs have sparked anger and anxiety nationwide, as most employees in different cities were supposed to get their salaries via the banking system on the first day of the month. But this angst has gone far beyond the first month of the military takeover in Myanmar. It has since become a permanent feature.
I was among one of the many who were frustrated for not being able to use mobile services including financial ones that required internet access. And like many, I was engulfed by an avalanche of inexpressible emotions regarding the political situation of what would happen next. Watching television news broadcasted from the state-owned channel about announcements on the military coup had indeed triggered public outcry. Later, many people – both from urban and rural areas – experienced the same as soon as they had figured out about the situation via radio or TV.
Shortages of cash at ATMs were widely reported and many banks have not been fully functional since that morning. Some branches halted their operations entirely. There were limits in withdrawals from private banks for both individuals and businesses. People had lost faith in the banking sector. And one of the extreme consequences was that they had to pay agents that are connected with banks for informal cash withdrawal services, paying a commission of 3% to 6% of the withdrawn amount. This remained the case throughout the first year after the coup. Overall, the economy has gone back to a cash-based one due to unreliable online banking and internet services. As of August 2022, limitations on cash withdrawal have stayed in place. Anyone who wants to withdraw more than the set limit has to pay about 0.5% extra from their own bank accounts to these agents. The cash crunch was one of the many signs that marked the beginning of the collapse of economic activities in Myanmar after the coup.
Since 1 February 2021, political instability has a severe impact on businesses in the country. Many businesses closed or were forced to be halted for months while recovery from the Covid-19 crisis was also delayed.
According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) report, the Myanmar military’s decision to seize power has generated public resistance across the country. Over 4,700 anti-coup demonstrations had been held by the end of June 2021. Peaceful anti-coup protests including street protests during daytime, banging pots and pans in the evenings, and other more innovative ways to protests such as digital strikes have fuelled and accelerated the pro-democracy movement against the military coup.
The civil disobedience movement is no doubt one of the pillars for what many people describe as a revolution. Several other forms of resistance taking place both online and on-the-ground, such as social punishment campaigns and digital movements, have also been key to support the resistance and the People’s Defense Forces (PDF). A clear public endorsement of the anti-coup movement manifested itself in the form of direct material and financial support. Individuals and businesses alike donated food and supplies, offered free transportation, besides attending peaceful protests.
At the same time, economic activities have slowed down due to the chaos of military oppression. Throughout 2021 and 2022, the mass movement has evolved into both armed and unarmed resistance. In addition, the emergence of more and more local defense forces has led to more hardline oppression on civilians from the military. The worst areas for security have also seen the worst economic activities.
Myanmar has been battered by civil war for decades, which started even way before most young protesters like me were born. However, though the 1988 Uprising was one of the most remarkable political moments in Myanmar’s modern history, it has long been left out of our history textbooks. But I bore witness to the 2007 Saffron Revolution when I was in high school. If my memory serves me right, that was the first time I have come to know what a protest was and how cruel the regime could be.
The present resistance movement propelled primarily by Generation Z has seen violent conflict across the country. Bombings are frequent in Yangon, the country’s most prominent commercial centre. Even a mere commute to the workplace would not come without a risk. In fact, many people have lost their jobs. A significant surge in unemployment in different cities was recorded since businesses have shut down and many international companies left the country. Those who have managed to stay in their jobs with the same income are faced with doubled living costs and commodity prices due to inflation. Those from the outskirts of the city and rural communities are particularly struggling with making ends meet and providing decent education to their children as they had to cut down on both food and non-food consumption. More and more people have moved abroad to nearby countries such as Thailand and Malaysia, in view of the growing difficulties to make a living in the cities.
Meanwhile in the rural areas, villagers are confronted by increasing threats to livelihood and safety. As there are more than 70,000 villages in Myanmar, community practices in individual
Even if crops can be grown, harvesting has been uncertain, not to mention the disruption caused by the marauding of junta troops. The junta forces torch houses and destroy paddy seeds at warehouses or storages, leading villagers to flee their homes instead of farming or harvesting. In September 2022, about 400 soldiers raided 40 villages in the two regions and destroyed paddy seeds by opening seed bags and grinding them with vehicles. The destruction of paddy seeds was intended to stop agricultural activities in villages where resistance has been strong. In particular, small-scale farmers who harvest manually require more time to finish before the junta forces intrude again. Each raid usually lasts three to five days, after which villagers would return to their place. However, in the case of more frequent raids, villagers have to evacuate more than twice a month. The constant struggles with livelihood have led to the rise of massive forced displacement.
Some displaced villagers use monasteries as sanctuaries, others seek refuge in neighbouring villages. They survive on a bare minimum of rice given by their neighbours, vegetables grown in their yards or plants from the forest. Neighbours often share their produce with each other, which has become a beautiful community practice by which people can reinforce resilience and gain strength from each other. But such communal efforts were also met with suppression. For example, in August 2022, a businessman from Mandalay posted on social media that he would give out free paddy seeds. Five days after the announcement, he was arrested by one of the military forces.
Transportation is another issue, as commuting between cities has become increasing challenging. Truck drivers have to stay very cautious to avoid landmines, which can be found on the sides of thoroughfares. Thus almost all vehicles drive in the middle of the road. The cost of transporting goods and agricultural products has risen, as some truck drivers dare not take risks. Apart from security concerns, extra charges at informal checkpoints add to the costs.
Many migrant workers and people who are not in farming used to work in the construction sector in Mandalay, a large commercial city. But this does not happen anymore, as most construction sites have been shut. At present, many people are facing the daily struggle to put enough food on the table.
Villages have been burnt down by the military during its purge of rebels and driven thousands to flee. It has a profound impact on the agricultural production around the conflict zones. Farmers cannot grow or harvest crops whereas seasonal workers are not able to secure their employment.
Since 2020, economic hardship in Myanmar escalated, first due to the Covid-19 pandemic and then due to the military coup. Agriculture, one of the country’s major economic engines, has been crippled by the conflicts across the country. People are also experiencing uncontrollable inflation of food prices and costs of non-essential items, driven by the hiking of fuel prices and transportation costs, obstructions to farming activities in remote areas due to political turmoil and uncertainties, etc. Two years on, the military rule has persisted, and so has the economic hardship under unpredictable life-threatening risks shared by people in both urban and rural regions in Myanmar.