In 1962, a man named Ne Win seized power in Burma (now Myanmar) via coup d’état. He declared himself both President and Prime Minister and dissolved the legislature. His whims effectively became the law of the land. He issued into action something he called the “Burmese Way to Socialism,” an ideology of isolation which has since been widely panned as disastrous. Among other things, Those who came from outside Burma’s borders — even those working for aid organizations like the Red Cross — were by and large barred from entry (and, if they did manage to find a way in, were forcibly expelled). As a side effect, non-Burmese currency was rare in the country.
And as a side effect to that side effect, if you go to Myanmar today, you want to have crisp $100 bills on you.
Let’s go back to that lack of currency diversity caused by Ne Win, best described via example, as he had some odd monetary policies. In 1963, fearing that people were hoarding cash, Ne Win “issued a decree that 50 and 100 kyat notes would cease to be legal tender,” as Wikipedia summarizes, destroying the savings of many in the process. And while certainly dramatic, that’s one of the less-weird things Ne Win did when it came to money. Wikipedia continues:
In 1987—reportedly on the recommendation of an astrologer that the number nine was auspicious—Ne Win ordered the withdrawal of several large-denomination kyat notes while issuing new denominations of 45 and 90 kyats. Both 45 and 90 are divisible by nine, and their numerals add up to nine. The many Burmese whose saved money in the old large denominations lost their life savings. This crippled the Burmese economy further still. Ne Win was well known for his penchant for numerology and yadaya (cabalistic rituals and spells performed in order to ward off misfortune). When his soothsayer warned him that there might be a bloodbath, he would stand in front of a mirror and trample on meat to simulate the blood then shoot himself in the mirror to avert the possibility of an assassination attempt.
The move to the 9-based currency wiped out perhaps as much as 75% of the cash holdings of the citizens of Burma. (The soothsayer/mirror stuff has nothing to do with the rest of this story, but… wow.)
Ne Win resigned in 1988 but had extensive political influence for ten years after that. And regardless, the damage he did to the monetary system remained for decades after his resignation. People weren’t keeping their savings in kyat.
But they were keeping them in cash. The currency of choice? American dollars. How the U.S. currency entered into the Burmese monetary system isn’t so clear, but given the instability of the local currency, it makes sense that the former was sought after. What’s weird, though, is that not all American money was treated equally — even accounting for the differences in face value. The newness of the bill mattered a lot.
It makes some sense that $100 bills were (and still are) favored, with $20 bills also desired although less so. But creases, tears, or inkblots devalue the money in the eyes of those in Myanmar. The bills were treated as precious items, not as currency, especially because ATMs were virtually unheard of until 2012 due to international sanctions. And going to the teller was not an option, either; as NPR noted in early 2013, “the banks in Myanmar could have solved this problem by accepting old U.S. currency. But for a long time they were cut off from U.S. banks by sanctions, so they didn’t want the old bills, either.”
That’s changed a bit, but it’s a work in progress. Travelers to Myanmar are regularly advised to find new bills before visiting. As one travel writer reported later in 2013, “although the Myanmar government has recently told the banks to accept more than just the most pristine of foreign currency, bills that are not perfect may still be rejected, or exchanged at a lower rate.” He suggested that visitors to Myanmar “treat your bills like gold… crisp, paper-thin gold.”
And shoot yourself in the mirror, too. Just to be safe. (Okay, you can skip that part.)
From the Archives: Hawaii Dollars: The special type of money used in World War II Hawaii.