BANGKOK – More than two years after Myanmar’s military overthrew the country’s elected government and set off a bloody civil war, resistance groups pushing back against junta rule are finding increasingly clever and high-tech ways to fund their fight.
Simple donations from the country’s diaspora from Sweden to Singapore continue to flow into what remains a largely funded campaign, but bonds, property auctions and mining leases now add to the mix.
The National Unity Government, an opposition shadow administration brought out of hiding and exile, launched a digital currency last year as an end run around junta-held banks and is now on the verge of opening its own online bank.
“While the NUG would clearly love more government sponsorship and support, whether it’s lethal aid or non-lethal aid, from Western countries, it’s just not in the cards right now, so they’ve really had to be self-sufficient,” said Zachary Abuza , a professor at Washington’s National War College who has studied Southeast Asian insurgencies for 30 years.
“And they’ve done it through some of the most technologically savvy and creative, and dare I say, playful, ways,” he told VOA. “They’ve really flipped the script.”
FILE – Myanmar refugees, fleeing a wave of violence as the military cracks down on rebel groups, walk with food aid on the Thai border in Thailand’s Mae Sot district, January 15, 2022.
Not so real estate
The fighting is estimated to have killed more than 30,000 people, displaced over 1.5 million internally and sent thousands more fleeing to neighboring countries since the February 2021 coup.
Hundreds of local militias have taken up arms across the country to fight back, often alongside ethnic minority-led rebel armies that have battled the military for territory for decades. The NUG commands and funds many of the militias and has allied itself with some of the largest rebel armies.
The NUG refused VOA’s request for an interview and ignored its emails.
But at a news briefing in January, its Minister for Planning, Finance and Investment, Tin Tun Naing, said the NUG had raised over $100 million so far. He said nearly half had come from the sale of so-called Spring Revolution bonds, named after what opposition groups have called Myanmar’s “Spring Revolution”. The bonds bear no interest and will be repaid only if and when the junta falls.
He said the NUG had also collected more than $1.4 million in taxes over about half of Myanmar that resistance groups are believed to control or contest and would soon begin selling leases to precious mines still largely in junta hands. NUG reportedly sold its first mining lease to an anonymous buyer for $4 million in February.
The shadow government has also auctioned shares in properties owned or seized by the military, including a lakeside villa junta leader Min Aung Hlaing uses in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital. As with the mining leases, investors cannot actually use what they have bought until the opposition wins.
Abuza said the property auctions are particularly popular and are likely to outpace NUG’s bond proceeds eventually, because people can actually make money from the property.
In bonds we trust
While simple donations from around the world often arrive in jumbles, they are also believed to add up to millions of dollars for the NUG and others.
From his home in New York, Myanmar’s Khin Moe auctions off rings, pendants and other glittery jewelry online for the sake of it. At up to $20 a ticket, she said she can rake in well over $1,000 apiece.
She and a circle of friends and family have also bought about $10,000 worth of Spring Revolution bonds. Khin Moe said her sister, who also lives in New York, even bought a unit in an apartment building the NUG has designed and promised to build, one day, on land still held by Myanmar’s military.
“The [the junta] wants to control everyone else with power. … They took all the prisoners, and they killed the people and the students. The worst thing is that they took everyone else’s freedom; we cannot accept that, she told VOA.
“We trust the … NUG leaders [can] help and support whatever people need in Burma, that’s why we trust them, and we bought the bonds,” she added, using another name for Myanmar. “We know that these kinds of bonds don’t earn interest money, but we support because we trust.”
Getting that money into the hands of the people for whom it is intended on the ground in Myanmar is another matter.
With the coup, the military took control of Myanmar’s central bank and soon ordered local banks to monitor and block accounts suspected of sending funds to opposition groups. It has arrested those who transferred money through suspicious accounts and sentenced them to 10 years in prison with hard labour.
The informal “hundi” money transfer system, which uses networks of connected agents, helps them bypass the banks but has its limits.
As another solution, NUG last year launched the Digital Myanmar Kyat, or DMMK, a cryptocurrency linked 1-to-1 to the real kyat based on blockchain technology designed to be difficult or impossible to block. It also launched a mobile wallet, NUGPay, for users to hold and trade the digital coins.
Banking on victory
While still in its infancy, DMMK is helping the resistance move money into and around the country, said Soe, a blockchain expert who asked that his full name not be used for security reasons.
Soe trains non-governmental charities in Myanmar’s conflict zones to use cryptocurrencies and other blockchain tools to evade the military’s banking restrictions and its suspected wiretapping of mobile networks, and he maintains contact with some militias and rebel armies.
FILE – Members of the People’s Defense Forces (PDF) who have taken up arms against Myanmar’s military junta are seen on a front line in Kawkareik, Myanmar, December 31, 2021.
“The main thing is that the revolution needs financial support from the people [of Myanmar] and other people from other countries. Using crypto is one of the safest ways to support,” he told VOA. “Not only Myanmar’s military, [but] all governments around the world cannot control transactions on the blockchain.”
DMMK’s limited interchangeability with other cryptocurrencies, and the need for physical agents to switch in and out, has raised doubts about its ultimate utility for the resistance. Soe said the scattered details that NUG has revealed about its plans for its upcoming Spring Development Bank could solve some of those problems, in part by using a blockchain network that is more compatible with other cryptocurrencies than the one that hosts DMMK.
NUG has previously announced launch dates for the online bank that have come and gone. In late June, local media reported on their plans to take the bank live sometime this month.
However, Myanmar’s armed resistance scrapes by on a fraction of the billions of dollars at the junta’s disposal. If NUG gets its bank working, however, it could prove to be an important new lifeline, said Abuza, who has held confidential talks with NUG about its plans.
“I’ve seen the details of Spring Bank and what they’re offering and the interface that they’re going to use online, and I think it’s going to be popular,” he said.
“It will be a source of income for the NUG, but it will also facilitate their other financing, including the lottery, land sales, bond sales, etc.,” he said. “So, if they can pull this off… it will be very important for them to sustain the revolution.”