Crypto’s role in Myanmar’s anti-coup resistance
Schooled by Breach is a weekly newsletter where Breach writer, Adetomiwa talks to people with experience about pressing crypto questions, learns a lesson and shares the findings with you. Crypto can be easy, so let’s figure it out together. Out every Friday!
This is the third of a five-part series on Schooled by Breach where we explore how people in various countries are using or have used crypto in their quest for civil liberation. This week’s episode covers how people in Myanmar are using crypto to fight the military coup. Read the previous episode about Afghans vs the Taliban here.
You may remember seeing photos from the Miss Universe pageant last year with a banner that said: “Pray for Myanmar”. The contestant, Thuzar Wint Lwin, was calling our attention to the coup that had consumed her country. When she was holding the banner in May 2021, it had been three months since the military seized power in Myanmar.
Before we go further, let’s go back to the beginning:
Myanmar is a nation in Southeast Asia neighbouring Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh, China and India. On the first of February 2021, shortly after a democratic election, the military forcefully took power. They claimed to have done this because the winning party had rigged the elections. The military also sentenced the democratically elected president to several years in prison on account of over a dozen charges, all of which she denies.
Days after the military took over, equipped anti-military armed groups and civilians sprung up in retaliation. There have been peaceful protests to challenge the military takeover. Several accounts report that people have stood on their balconies banging pots on various occasions — this is a traditional demonstration used to chase away evil. In retribution, the military rammed trailers into protesters, bombed people’s homes, and incinerated civilians alive.
A villager told Radio Free Asia that he knew of the military’s violence before, but burning alive is a “new level of brutality”.
“We are suffering all over the country. I know these people are cruel, but I never thought they would be so cruel as to burn unarmed minors”, the villager said.
The UN reports that since the coup was launched and anti-government armed groups formed, over 300,000 people are now displaced. Many in the country are also experiencing acute malnutrition and shrinking access to basic amenities. This is because importation is becoming impossible due to the rapidly deteriorating currency.
Furthermore, the International Crisis Group reports that the military has killed over 1,500 civilians in the past year — including some who were tortured to death in interrogation centres — and arrested, charged or jailed 9,000 more.
Regardless, the people of Myanmar are not relenting: “I think they did it to scare us, but it didn’t, and we will fight them to the end”, said the villager who witnessed the burning of bodies.
Doctors in Myanmar also stopped working, banks closed their offices, and shop owners, on various occasions, have observed silent protests where they closed shop — all as acts of resistance.
Crypto: One of their chosen tools of resistance
Not only is Myanmar’s national currency, the kyat, losing its value and the country running out of cash, but the central bank is also now mainly in control of the military. So in December of 2021, the Myanmar shadow government — a political anti-coup group formed mainly of the democratically elected group of leaders that were ousted — announced Tether as an alternative currency.
Tether (USDT) is a stablecoin pegged to the U.S. dollar. Stablecoins are cryptos pegged to stable assets like the U.S. dollar, British pounds, or gold. They reduce volatility generally associated with cryptocurrencies. They’re transferred via anonymous wallet addresses, making them virtually impossible to trace.
Myanmar’s shadow government adopted Tether to make it easy to access donations and payouts for the resistance and their goal of “returning Myanmar to a democratic government”. They’re also encouraging people in the country to use Tether for everyday transactions, as this will further weaken the military’s control over their financial wellbeing.
“Suppose a majority of the citizens will come to use a cryptocurrency regularly, it may make money into pieces of paper, no matter how many bills the central bank prints”, a consultant from Myanmar told the publication, Nikkei Asia. The consultant — who didn’t provide a name — added that Tether allows Myanmar citizens to make transactions or remit money without worrying about being monitored or obstructed by the authorities.
The people of Myanmar are embracing this alternative currency to the extent that its growing popularity has caught the attention of the military, and they’re threatening to ban digital currencies and imprison anyone who uses them. But if the past year’s events are anything to go by, the citizens won’t stop without a fight.
Myanmar’s citizens, local armed groups, and the anti-coup political party are all working towards one goal: overthrowing the military rule. And though it’s still not sure what their success might look like, crypto is creating an avenue for them to fund their goal and take control of the country’s financial future.
I hope you learnt as much reading this as I did writing it.
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