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2:12 am
Fri May 10, 2013

Why (Almost) No One In Myanmar Wanted My Money

Originally published on Fri May 10, 2013 6:50 pm

When you arrive in Myanmar, you can see how eager the people are to do business. At the airport in Yangon, new signs in English welcome tourists. A guy in a booth offers to rent me a local cellphone — and he's glad to take U.S. dollars. But when I pull out my money, he shakes his head.

"I'm sorry," he says.

He points to the crease mark in the middle of the $20 bill. No creases allowed.

So I pull out another, which he rejects because it's a little bit faded, and a third, which he doesn't want because of a tiny tear, and a fourth, which he calls "not very acceptable" because of a little ink spot.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, was largely closed to the world for decades. It's just getting used to the business of international currency exchange. And, like other countries that have gone through economic turmoil (Russia, Iraq, Argentina), Myanmar wants U.S. dollars to look like they just rolled off the presses.

When I start to ask people in Myanmar, they laugh and say they know it's crazy. But they've learned in their history that the last thing you can trust is an old piece of money.

You've probably heard about the human rights abuses under the former dictatorship in Burma. But the old government also used to screw with the money all the time. Officials would suddenly announce that certain denominations of the local currency were worthless. It would be like waking up to find that the $100 bill was worthless.

The old socialist government was worried that some people were getting rich, Zeya Thu, an editor with The Voice, told me. So without warning, they would take the largest denominations out of circulation.

When it happened in 1987, Zeya's parents were getting ready for retirement. They had just cashed out their life savings to buy a plot of land. They were in the room with the seller, about to buy the land, and the government came on the radio and said the bills were worthless.

The country's leader created new bills overnight in denominations that were multiples of nine — his lucky number. Zeya says the math of adding and subtracting 45s would give people headaches.

So people started to sock away their extra money in U.S. currency. And when your life savings is a few U.S. $100 bills, you want to keep them pristine. Like other people in Myanmar, my translator kept his U.S. bills pressed flat in the pages of a book. Like baseball card collectors, people in Myanmar want their bills in mint condition.

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.

As a result, visitors to Myanmar have to bring bills so crisp you can cut tomatoes with them. And bills that are less than perfect end up on the black market. I took my $20 bill with a tiny ink spot on it to a black-market money changer. He gave me $17.75 for it.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, or Burma, is just opening up after decades of economic sanctions. And people there are eager to get their hands on U.S. dollars. But not those torn bills you might have pieced together with tape. No way.

Robert Smith of NPR's Planet Money tells us why people are picky.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: When you arrive in Myanmar, at the airport in Yangon, you can see how eager everyone is to do business. There are new signs in English welcoming tourists. And a guy in a booth offers to rent me a local cell phone, only $10 a day. But when I pull out my U.S. currency, he shakes his head, oh, no, no, no, no, no.

I'm sorry. I'm sorry. What, what's...

KADEK: (Unintelligible)

SMITH: Kadek, that's his name - Kadek points to the fold mark in the middle of a nice-looking $20 bill. He won't accept bills with creases. So I pull out another.

Wait, what's wrong with this one?

KADEK: There's a little bit fading.

SMITH: Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Where is the fading?

KADEK: In there.

SMITH: The next one is a tiny, tiny tear - rejected. Let's try one more.

KADEK: This one is not very acceptable because there is ink.

SMITH: OK, it looks like somebody put a Sharpie pen right on the corner. There's a little - it's a little tiny bit of ink. You know, in the United States - in the United States is a perfectly good.

KADEK: Yes. Yes, I'm sure. Even in other countries other than Myanmar this is still acceptable.

SMITH: But not here. When I start to ask people why the bills have to be perfect, they laugh and say, yeah, they know it's crazy. But you have to understand the history of Myanmar.

You've probably heard about the human rights abuses under the former military regime in Burma. But the old government also used to screw with the money. All the time. It would, all of a sudden, announce that certain denominations of the currency were worthless. It would be like waking up to find that the $100 dollar bill was suddenly outlawed. If you had cash hidden in your mattress...

ZEYA THU: Those money are gone. Just with the wind.

SMITH: Zeya Thu is an editor with the Voice of Myanmar. He says the old socialist government was worried that some people were getting rich. So it would take the largest denominations out of circulation. No warning. Zeya remembers the time in 1987. It devastated businesses and the middle class.

THU: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. My family too, because at the time, my father and mother were government servants.

SMITH: They were civil servants, getting ready for retirement. And Zeya tells the story about how they had cashed out their life savings to buy a plot of land. Put the money in a suitcase, and literally, as they were about to buy the property. They were in the room with the seller, the Burmese government came on the radio. All those bills - worthless.

The largest amount of money in our life, and then it was just gone with that announcement.

The government created new bills overnight - strange ones in denominations that corresponded to the dictator's lucky number - nine. So all of a sudden people had to do business with bills worth 45 and 90 kyat - the local currency.

And many people vowed to keep their life savings in a currency no dictator could touch - the U.S. dollar.

So that explains why the Myanmar love the dollar. But why does it have to be bills so perfect they look like they just rolled off the presses? That has to do with the banks.

For decades, Myanmar banks were cut off from the rest of the world. They didn't have an easy way to recycle U.S. currency. And American banks, by law, weren't allowed to deal with them. And so American $100 dollar bills started functioning less like a currency and more like - like a collector's item. People treat their hundreds like they're rare baseball cards. No one wants to smudge or bend them.

My translator, Swe Win, showed me his.

For example, you've opened a book here in here and you have crisp $100 dollar bills in here; they're perfect, they're beautiful. Look at this. It's just - how many? You've got...

SWE WIN: I always bring my money with me.

SMITH: This may seem like an economic quirk, but for a developing country, this does real damage. There are people who want to spend U.S. dollars in Myanmar. And people who want to take them. But the whole system can be held up by a random crinkle down the face of Ben Franklin. It functions almost like a tax on the use of U.S. currency. And who gets that tax?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Change money.

SMITH: Do you speak English?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes, yes. Money. Change?

SMITH: The black market. This guy popped out of the shadows of a shopping arcade. He says he'll take my cash, just not for full price. He points out every flaw.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Here, look, damage. Here, look, damage.

SMITH: Eventually, after a few of these interactions, I find out what my $20 bill with a tiny little mark on it was worth in Myanmar - 17 dollars and 75 cents. They'll, of course, smuggle it back to a place where it's worth full price.

Robert Smith, NPR News.

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GREENE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.