Myanmar currency drops 60 per cent in weeks as economy tanks after February coup

The economic crisis has driven up the price of staples in Myanmar.
The economic crisis has driven up the price of staples in Myanmar. PHOTO: REUTERS

NAYPYIDAW (REUTERS) - Myanmar's currency has lost more than 60 per cent of its value since the beginning of September, driving up food and fuel prices in an economy that has tanked since a military coup eight months ago.

Many gold shops and money exchanges closed on Wednesday (Sept 29) due to the turmoil, while the kyat's dive trended on social media with comments ranging from stark warnings to efforts to find some humour as yet another crisis hits the strife-torn nation.

"This will rattle the generals as they are quite obsessed with the kyat rate as a broader barometer of the economy, and therefore a reflection on them," Mr Richard Horsey, a Myanmar expert at the International Crisis Group, said.

In August, the Central Bank of Myanmar tried tethering the kyat 0.8 per cent on either side of its reference rate against the dollar, but gave up on Sept 10 as pressure on the exchange rate mounted.

The shortage of dollars has become so bad that some money changers have pulled down their shutters.

"Due to the currency price instability at the moment... all Northern Breeze Exchange Service branches are temporarily closed," the money changer said on Facebook.

Those still operating were quoting a rate of 2,700 kyat per dollar on Tuesday, compared to 1,695 on Sept 1 and 1,395 on Feb 1, when the military overthrew a democratically elected government led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

World Bank warns economy to slump 18 per cent

The World Bank predicted on Monday the economy would slump 18 per cent this year and said Myanmar would see the biggest contraction in employment in the region and the number of poor would rise.

The increasing economic pressures come amid signs of an upsurge in bloodshed, as armed militias have become bolder in clashes with the army after months of protests and strikes by opponents of the junta.

"The worse the political situation is, the worse the currency rate will be," said a senior executive at a Myanmar bank, who declined to be identified.

Myanmar is also struggling to deal with a second wave of coronavirus infections that started in June, with the response by the authorities crippled after many health workers joined protests.

Reported cases have comes off their highs, though the true extent of the outbreak remains unclear.

In the immediate months after the Feb 1 coup, many people queued up to withdraw savings from banks and some bought gold, but a jewellery merchant in Yangon said many desperate people were now trying to sell their gold.

The central bank gave no reason to why it abandoned its managed float strategy earlier this month, but analysts believe its foreign currency reserves must be seriously depleted.

Central bank officials did not answer calls seeking comment, but World Bank data shows it had just US$7.67 billion (S$10.42 billion) in reserves at the end of last year (2020).

After coming off its managed float, the central bank still spent US$65 million, buying kyat at a rate of 1,750 to 1,755 per dollar between Sept 13 and 27.

The bank executive said the central bank's efforts had limited impact in a currency market shorn of confidence.

The economic crisis has driven up the price of staples, and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said this week that about three million people now require humanitarian assistance in Myanmar, up from one million before the coup.

In a country where gross domestic product per capita was just US$1,400 last year, a 48kg bag of rice now costs 48,000 kyat, or around US$18, up nearly 40 per cent since the coup, while gasoline prices have nearly doubled to 1,445 kyat per litre.

"If you have money, you buy gold, you buy dollars, you buy (Thai) baht. If you do not have money, you will starve," said Facebook user Win Myint in a post.