Myanmar’s economic troubles caused by Covid have deepened intensely since last year’s coup.
The economy has contracted by 18 percent since February 2021 and it is projected to grow 3 percent in the fiscal year ending this month, according to the World Bank. The kyat slumped by 60 percent against the US dollar this year.
Food prices and the cost of living have spiked as the kyat weakened while unemployment has hit unprecedented levels. Businesses have been struggling with junta restrictions, especially those involving foreign exchange.
Economic progress was slower than expected under the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government but it offered stability and solid growth prospects.
The NLD offered an increased budget share for the regions and states, steady development in the banking and financial sectors, a decline in the trade deficit, anti-corruption efforts, a stable exchange rate and clear economic policies.
Amid the economic meltdown, The Irrawaddy remembers the NLD’s key economic figures, who have been prosecuted on baseless charges since the coup.
U Soe Win
After U Kyaw Win was forced to step down in a corruption scandal in 2018, U Soe Win, with over 30 years of experience as an investment and financial advisor for domestic and foreign agencies and companies, succeeded him as the planning and finance minister. The 80-year-old was an adviser to the NLD’s central economic committee when he was appointed.
Even government critics welcomed his appointment.
“He was 80. He could have retired and lived in comfort. But he was clearly determined to improve the economy,” an economist said.
Budget distribution and taxation improved and coordination between the Central Bank of Myanmar (CBM) and the planning ministry strengthened under his leadership.
After the coup, the regime charged him under the Official Secrets Act as a co-defendant with the NLD’s Australian economic advisor, Sean Turnell. The 83-year-old has been granted bail as he is suffering from colon cancer.
U Hset Aung
As deputy planning and finance minister, U Hset Aung played a leading role in drafting the 2018-30 Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan in September 2018 which outlined strategies for sustainable and balanced development.
He was an expat who returned to help military-appointed President U Thein Sein’s reforms and was a key figure in opening Myanmar up to foreign investors.
He was appointed CBM vice-governor in 2013 and deputy planning and finance minister by the NLD in 2016.
He is a central figure in the implementation of the Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ), the first of its kind in Myanmar. He also chaired the Thilawa and Kyaukphyu SEZ management committees.
He played an important role in negotiations with the China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC) over ownership of the multibillion-dollar, Chinese-backed Kyaukphyu SEZ and deep-sea port projects. He convinced CITIC to lower its ownership stake from 85 to 70 percent amid sensitivity over Chinese economic dominance and concerns over Beijing’s “debt-trap diplomacy”.
Along with U Soe Win and Turnell, he was charged under the Official Secrets Act.
U Bo Bo Nge
There was considerable friction between the NLD-appointed CBM and private banks dominated by military cronies.
CBM vice governor U Bo Bo Nge confronted the bankers as he oversaw the foreign exchange management, financial institution supervision and accounts departments.
“At every meeting with private banks, U Bo Bo Nge called them little more than pawnbrokers who only know how to accept collateral and receive interest,” a market research chief told The Irrawaddy.
With greater autonomy granted to the CBM under the NLD, the central bank ordered private banks to reduce the gap between interest rates on deposits and loans because the interest rate on loans was much higher than on deposits.
He also restricted bank loans to their subsidiaries and banned the appointment of managers without banking experience, including the children of bank owners.
“He criticized private banks for not complying with ethical banking and targeted owners who also operate airlines and other businesses. The cronies were not happy with restrictions on non-performing loans and allowing foreign banks to open branches in Myanmar,” said an economist.
Loans to independent businesses increased and improved access to mortgages benefitted middle-income families. Digital payments and online banking also created a competitive environment.
U Bo Bo Nge served on the NLD’s economic committee before his appointment as CBM vice-governor in July 2017.
The regime charged him under the Anti-Corruption Law, accusing him of failing to tax donations from the Open Society Foundation of billionaire philanthropist George Soros among other charges.
Turnell was a key economic advisor to State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. He was detained shortly after last year’s coup and charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
Businesses said Turnell worked for Myanmar, not for money and had a genuine commitment to improving living standards after decades of poverty.
Turnell once said his focus was on establishing a stable economy and a sound banking system to attract foreign investment and create jobs.
“He advised against the customary practice of printing money to reduce the deficit,” an economist told The Irrawaddy.
Turnell also served as director of research at the Myanmar Development Institute, a leading economic think tank focused on building government capacity.
Another economist said: “It is a shame to arrest a person who has come to help our country.”
Turnell has also been charged under the Immigration Act for visa violations.
The details of Turnell’s alleged offense are unknown although junta-controlled television said he had access to “secret state financial information” and tried to flee the country. He denied possessing confidential documents.