It has been fourteen months since the 2021 Coup in Myanmar. In this webinar, Ms Vicky Bowman, Mr Win Myo Thu and Mr Aung Tun shared their assessments of the impacts of the 2021 coup on Myanmar’s economy, ecosystem, and the livelihood of Myanmar people.
MYANMAR STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Monday, 11 April 2022 – the ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme convened a webinar inviting Ms Vicky Bowman (Executive Director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business), Mr Win Myo Thu (Managing Director of ECODEV/ALARM) and Mr Aung Tun (Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute) to reflect on the situation in Myanmar, particularly the socio-economic impact of the February 2021 coup in Myanmar. The webinar, moderated by Ms Moe Thuzar, co-coordinator of the ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme, attracted the interest of 123 attendees with over 20 questions in a span of fifteen minutes Q&A section.
Ms Bowman, speaking in her personal capacity, discussed the most recent findings of the World Bank’s Myanmar Economic Monitor (issued in January 2022), related to the country’s economic, energy, transport and logistics, and digital and telecommunications challenges. Mr Win Myo Thu, also speaking in his personal capacity, examined the overall deterioration of livelihood capital by breaking it down into five categories: natural resource capital, social capital, human capital, financial capital and physical capital. He emphasized the damage dealt to Myanmar’s ecosystem in the wake of the coup. Mr Aung Tun addressed the socioeconomic implications of the post-coup situation for grassroots communities in areas ranging from agriculture and social cohesion in local communities to local governance issues in conflict zones.
Key points made in the discussion included the following:
- Obtaining cash is easier for Myanmar people in 2022 than the previous year mainly because of the ‘new accounts’ at banks with unlimited withdrawals. Even for old accounts, the Central Bank of Myanmar (CBM) has slowly increased the withdrawal limits while trying to print more ‘cash’ for circulation. However, the forgery of ‘new notes’ is also a rising concern. Overall, a slight increase in confidence in the banking system has led cash to return to greater circulation.
- Depreciation in the value of the kyat has increased the costs of inputs. The World Bank has estimated 8.7 percent inflation in September 2022 compared to 7.3 percent in September 2021.
- The public has overall reduced spending power while the business sector also took a hit with reduced availability of loans and investments. Investors are still sceptical of the state of the economy.
- Restrictions on holding and remitting foreign exchange announced in CBM Notification 12/2022 of 3 April have once again struck fear into and given rise to uncertainties in the business community.
- Crime has increased. Robberies of banks have been frequently reported. The security of firms’ employees on their commutes is still at risk.
- Transportation is a significant challenge, especially in the regions affected by conflict. Demands for payment from military and armed groups ramp up additional costs as well as create delays adding to a general sense of insecurity. Major trade routes such as the Myawaddy-Kawkareik Highway in Kayin State are still not fully functional.
- Regular power cuts and internet restrictions are putting a strain on Myanmar’s economy. Increased prices for data and SIM cards could lead to further restraint of online economic activity and the closure of many digital start-ups that rely on consistent, reliable, and widespread internet access to reach markets. The lack of investment in the network leads to service degradation overall. The proposed cybersecurity law, which was met with widespread criticism, still lingers in the shadows, creating a sense of instability.
- Power cuts along with rising fuel prices mean higher costs of running businesses. Some factories might be forced to shut down, with impacts on workers who are already vulnerable.
- The price of urea, a nitrogen fertilizer and significant agricultural input, has gone up substantially, partly because of the Ukraine-Russia Crisis, making life more difficult for Myanmar farmers. If urea inputs are halved, this would lead agricultural output to fall by 9-15 percent, with a particularly big shortfall in monsoon rice from delta according to estimates from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington. Higher commodity prices could help a selective group of Myanmar farmers (for instance, corn farmers) if they can get access to inputs at reasonable prices.
- International funding will be needed for Ukraine’s reconstruction, and Myanmar will find itself competing with Ukraine for development partner funding.
- There is reduced interest in Myanmar exports and tourism. Myanmar is viewed as significantly riskier than its regional peers, both politically and economically and in the short and long term. Potential risks include sanctions, human rights risk, stakeholder risks, and logistics and commercial risks. Supply chain due diligence is a must.
- For businesses in Myanmareconomy, it will be survival of the fittest. Overall reduced competition will harm Myanmar consumers who are already prone to have poorer services. Restrictions and controls will lead to increased rent-seeking behaviours and a possible return to monopolies and oligopolies.
- Deforestation has been on the rise for commercial timber (red-wood, plywood etc) after the 2021 coup. An accelerating trend of forest depletion is observed, compounded by charcoal production for livelihood survival and the plans of the State Administration Council (SAC) plans for commercial plantations. It may be nearly impossible to meet the policy target of the Nationally Determined Contributions Report to halve deforestation by 2030.
- The 2021 coup has had a profound impact on different sectors: security (both individual and institutional level), services (health, education, municipal services), the economy (banking, agriculture and investment), local governance and society (migration, social cohesion).
- National Unity Government and other anti-SAC forces have attempted to establish “people’s administration bodies” in some areas. Formal governance has collapsed in some places, and self-administered forms of governance have emerged in an attempt to fill the gap at the community level. The implications of these developments for federalism and democracy have yet to be seen. Locally led “parahita” (mutual welfare) support for communities across the nation can be observed in various sectors, including education, health, humanitarian assistance, municipal services, etc.
- Farmers face increased vulnerability to land grabs. More internal migration is certainly to be expected. Beans and pulses are still strong export commodities but are now overshadowed by the current foreign exchange policy. The SAC has no concrete policy for agriculture. Food security will be more and more of a concern because of logistical challenges and difficulties in the mobilisation of resources. The coup has destroyed all hopes of Myanmar’s agricultural products to be competitive on the regional/global stage.
- Agricultural input costs have skyrocketed, and border trade is still disrupted by conflict and COVID. Shipping is also unreliable. Farmers in conflict areas cannot farm because of a fear of landmines. Government subsidies to the agriculture sector (above all in the form of farm credit) have largely been disrupted because of a cash shortage resulting from the banking crisis. Most farmers have not been able to pay back their loans from the previous season.
- Education for children from farming communities will face serious challenges. Serious labour shortages are to be expected. Coercive actions by the SAC force repayment of loans will harm the already vulnerable communities further.
The general discussion that followed the speakers’ presentations further probed the foreign exchange crisis and its potential impact on Myanmar’s business community, role of remaining investments and what the current situation might mean for Myanmar’s long term economic partners, the SAC’s plans for eventual election, ethical business practices in the context of Myanmar, community resilience mechanisms, dynamics of conflict and potential contestation, and the impact of current circumstances on agricultural imports/exports and what it might mean for rural communities.