Demonetising the currency and the Constitution in Myanmar

Today the military tried to reassure people with a public announcement citing section 36(e) of the Constitution. This is the provision that prohibits the government from demonetising the currency. I have often said to people that this is one of the few provisions of the Constitution with which all people in Myanmar would agree upon. Now, this is small reassurance, as the military cannot just pick and chose which parts of the Constitution it will follow.

Here is an extract on what I refer to as the constitutional commitments to a market economy from The Constitution of Myanmar A Contextual Analysis, pp 114-116)

III.       Constitutional Commitments to a Market Economy

…..The Constitution is important for its economic and financial commitments. The Constitution is a public guarantee that the government cannot resort to the past strategies of the Tatmadaw that crippled the economy. The three key constitutional promises concerning the economy are the guarantee of a market economy (rather than a socialist economy), the promise not to demonetise the currency and the commitment not to nationalise industries (Constitution, ss 35, 36(d)-(e)).

The Constitution requires the country to be based on a market economy, closing the door on remnants of the policies and practices under socialist rule. A tendency towards socialist economics was evident in the early post-colonial years and was a means of ensuring the economy would be in Burmese control, rather than foreign control, be they British, Indians or Chinese. While efforts to reorient toward a market economy pre-date the Constitution, this provision plays a role in reinforcing the principle of a market economy. It stands as a constitutional guarantee that no future government can demonetise the currency again. The demonetisation decisions of the 1960s and 1980s had a devasting impact on people across the country, many of whom lost their savings without warning. The explicit mention of a market economy in the Constitution distinguishes it from its predecessor, the 1974 socialist Constitution that enshrined a socialist economy. The period of socialist rule from 1962 to 1988 ended in economic ruin. Myanmar joins a growing number of countries from Afghanistan to Cambodia and Romania that explicitly enshrine the market economy in the constitution. The inclusion of a ‘market economy’ provision in a constitution is an overt effort to distinguish economic reforms from the past and to embed the concept of the market economy in the Constitution, as a form of ‘higher’ law.

In the 1990s, the Tatmadaw made some legislative commitments to a market economy as a deliberate turn away from socialist era policies, but this did not take off due to Tatmadaw control of the economy, a growing black market and the effect of Western sanctions. The Tatmadaw’s monopoly of many sectors and industries narrowed who could participate in the economy and how. An extreme example is that some ministries were nicknamed after the area of the regional commander who was the Minister, such as the ministry of Agriculture being labelled the ‘Ministry of Southwest Command’. This is one indication of how ministries were run like a corporation under the personal control of the minister who was a military regional commander.

…Distinctive to Myanmar is the constitutional promise not to demonetise the currency, as previous regimes had done in the 1960s, and most recently in 1987–88, with devastating consequences. It was the demonetisation policy of the late 1980s that was part of the tipping point that lead to widespread protests for democracy and against the socialist regime. Many of the protestors in the 1988 demonstrations were students who had lost their savings and been unable to pay for the coming year’s university tuition fees. The anxiety and trauma of demonetisation has arisen in relation to debates related to monetary policies. For example, in 2017, the Pyithu Hluttaw received a proposal from an NLD member that the image of General Aung San (the father of Aung San Suu Kyi and independence hero) should be printed on currency notes. During the discussion, another NLD member referred to section 36(3) of the Constitution to endorse the proposal because it does not in any way intend to demonetise the currency.