A Royal Sum of Money
covering burma and southeast asia
Thursday, November 15, 2018


A Royal Sum of Money



Burma’s newly introduced 5,000-kyat banknote is a cumbersome luxury in a country where most transactions are made in far smaller denominations

The roadside teashop in mid-morning was a beehive of activity. As always on my trips to Rangoon, I met Aung Win and Kyaw Kyaw at our usual place for shwetaung hkauq sweh—noodles with chicken curry—washed down with cups of sweet, spiced Burmese tea, all accompanied by discussions of contemporary issues. The other patrons were similarly engaged, filling the shop with a buzz of background conversation, punctuated by smooching sounds as they called for more food or tea. My friends were already seated on small plastic stools at a low table when I arrived.

“A present for you!” beamed Kyaw Kyaw, usually the quieter of the two, as he handed me a crisp, new, pink 5,000-kyat (US $5) note, after a hello and a handshake. Featuring an illustration of a white elephant, for centuries a symbol of Burmese royalty, the new denomination notes went into circulation on Oct. 1, 2009, a decision thought to have been made by the superstitious generals more on the basis of astrology than sound fiscal policy. Indeed, the sudden introduction of the new banknotes took most Burmese by surprise, provoking fears of further price hikes and worsening inflation.

Knowing that both men, in their sixties, were semi-retired and supported by their children working abroad, I could not accept the banknote and insisted on a fair trade. I dug around in my pocket and handed Kyaw Kyaw five almost equally pristine 1,000-kyat notes.

As I did so, a brownish scrap of paper fell to the ground. It was a 100-kyat note, worth about 10 cents. Anywhere else, such banknotes would have been taken out of circulation long ago. Worn down by years of use, many of the printed details had been scuffed away or were hidden under decades of accumulated dirt and grime. The edges were ripped and frayed and, in places, the paper had been completely worn through. Enterprising Burmese had taped bits of paper to patch up the holes, the liberal amounts of accumulated cellophane tape yellow with age. The other smaller notes in my pocket, of 100- and 200-kyat denominations, were in similar, albeit slightly less severe, states of disintegration. Aung Win gave a sheepish smile as I gingerly returned the shred to my shirt pocket.

“You know, in our country, we do not have enough small banknotes,” Aung Win said, pausing to let the noise of a passing train fade as it chugged along the line running behind the teashop.

“That is the train that goes around the city,” he said. “If you go halfway around Rangoon, the fare is 10 kyat. If you go the whole way round, it is 20 kyat. The whole trip takes a little over two hours.”

He smiled before adding: “It is a gift from our government to the poor people.”

Aung Win continued: “Sometimes, when I buy a ticket, I give the ticket vendors a 20- or 50-kyat note. They shake their head and I know they have no change. So we don’t bother asking for change anymore. Or sometimes, I just buy a month’s pass for 500 kyat, or buy ten tickets at a time.

“The market toilet, too. It costs 30 kyat each time, but they never have any change. So now you can buy a ticket from them for 500 kyat, and use the toilet 20 times. Then, each time you use it, they tick off one box on the ticket. And now, when we buy something in the market and the vendors don’t have any change, they give you a candy or cigarette. I have so many now!”

Aung Win picked up the 5,000-kyat note on the table, pointing out its features. One side depicted an elephant, differing from all other Burmese currency notes in general circulation today, which sport an image of a chinthe, or Burmese lion. The other side of the banknote depicted a grandiose structure, with multi-tiered roofs; above the image was printed “Central Bank of Myanmar.”

“Our new parliament, in Naypyi-daw,” explained Aung Win.

“You know, no one really uses this,” he continued, waving the crisp note. “They print it in Naypyidaw, but it is not really in circulation here.”

He flipped the banknote over, laying it on the table with the elephant facing up.

“This is a white elephant,” he explained, tapping on the image with his index finger. “This is not for ordinary people, only powerful kings.”

Like the ragged banknote I had dropped earlier, Rangoon itself was looking rattier each time I visited.  With Burma’s “kings” ensconced in a new capital far from the masses, the country’s largest city had been left to molder. But just as my friends had little use for an impractically large denomination of their local currency, I knew that they also saw no real value in Naypyidaw, the “Abode of Kings”—or in the phony parliament that would soon sit there. 

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