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Why (Almost) No One In Myanmar Wanted My Money

NPR icon by Robert Smith
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When you arrive in Myanmar, you can see how eager they are to do business. At the airport in Yangon, new signs in English welcome tourists. A guy in a booth offers to rent me a local cell phone — and he's glad to take U.S. dollars. But when I pull out my money, he shakes his head.

"I'm sorry," he says.

He points to the crease mark in the middle of the $20 bill. No creases allowed.

So a pull out another, which he rejects because it's a little bit faded, and a third, which he doesn't want because of a tiny tear, and a fourth, which he calls "not very acceptable" because of a little ink spot.

Myanmar, which was largely closed to the world for decades, is just getting used to the business of international currency exchange. And, like other countries that have gone through economic turmoil (Russia, Iraq, Argentina), Myanmar wants U.S. dollars to look like they just rolled off the presses.

When I start to ask people in Myanmar, they laugh and say they know it's crazy. But they've learned in their history that the last thing you can trust is an old piece of money.

You've probably heard about the human rights abuses under the former dictatorship in Burma. But the old government also used to screw with the money all the time. Officials would suddenly announce that certain denominations of the local currency were worthless. It would be like waking up to find that the $100 bill was worthless.

The old socialist government was worried that people some people were getting rich, Zeya Thu, an editor with the Voice of Myanmar, told me. So without warning, they would take the largest denominations out of circulation.

When it happened in 1987, Zeya's parents were getting ready for retirement. They had just cashed out their life savings to buy a plot of land. They were in the room with the seller, about to buy the land, and the government came on the radio and said the bills were worthless.

The country's leader created new bills overnight in denominations that were multiples of nine — his lucky number. Zeya says the math of adding and subtracting 45s would give people headaches.

So people started to sock away their extra money in U.S. currency. And when your life savings is a few U.S. $100 hundred dollar bills, you want to keep them pristine. Like other people in Myanmar, my translator kept his U.S. bills pressed flat in the pages of a book. Like baseball card collectors, people in Myanmar want their bills in mint condition.

The banks in Myanmar could have solved this problem by accepting old U.S. currency. But for a long time they were cut off from U.S. banks by sanctions, so they didn't want the old bills either.

As a result, visitors to Myanmar have to bring bills so crisp you can cut tomatoes with them. And bills that are less than perfect end up on the black market. I took my $20 bill with a tiny ink spot on it to a black-market money changer. He gave me $17.75 for it.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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