Places in History

Now YSX, the Building Once Managed Myanmar’s Monetary System

By Wei Yan Aung 12 May 2020

Yangon — At the corner of Sule Pagoda Road and Merchant Street in Yangon (then Rangoon), the building which now houses the Yangon Stock Exchange was once at the center of Myanmar’s monetary system from the colonial period to the military regime.

The building was designed by architect G Douglas Smart to house the Yangon branch of the Reserve Bank of India, the central bank of British India. The branch opened in 1939 as the Reserve Bank of India and continued to manage the national financial system even after the country separated from India in 1937.

It issued banknotes and coins, oversaw the monetary system and ensured the stability of the rupee.

Two pairs of ionic columns dominate the recessed entrance of the heavy cut-stone neoclassical edifice. Except for two, tall patterned windows flanking the entrance, there are no details on the austere façade.

The centrally located bank was beside Queen’s Park (Maha Bandula Park), the High Court, City Hall, Sule Pagoda and Rowe and Co. department store.

When the Japanese invaded Yangon during World War II, Reserve Bank of India staff hastily emptied the vaults. They burned banknotes that could not be carried away to prevent them from falling into Japanese hands. An estimated 350 million rupees were destroyed.

Coins were dumped in the river by ox cart. The Japanese found nothing of value.

During the occupation, the building became the People’s Bank of Burma and issued Japanese banknotes, which became useless after the war in 1945. Cash the bank staff could not destroy covered the streets around the bank.

US soldier Glenn Hensley, who witnessed the scene, wrote: “streets near the Bank of India building were literally covered with paper money as thick as fallen leaves”.

The building then housed the Union Bank of Burma which was established in April 1948 after independence from the British in January.

Monetary independence from Britain was only achieved in 1952 and the first kyats were issued in July. The exchange rate was 5 kyats to a US dollar under the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League government when the country had the richest economy in Southeast Asia. The building was at the heart of the government’s economic policy.

The Yangon branch of the Reserve Bank of India in 1945.

After the military coup in 1962, the bank was used by the central planners that destroyed the economy. After all banks were nationalized by the military regime of the Burma Socialist Programme Party, the central bank remained as the sole public bank. The country was listed as one of the world’s least developed in 1987 after the collapse of the monetary system.

After pro-market reforms, it was renamed as the Central Bank of Myanmar in 1990. The military-owned Myawaddy Bank occupied the premises in 1993 for more than 20 years until the first stock exchange was opened in December 2015.

The 81-year-old structure was officially acknowledged as a heritage building in May 2017 but it has lost its grandeur as the monetary and financial hub of Myanmar.

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