Money Changers in Myanmar

I wrote this in 2004 when our family lived in Myanmar…

Money changers are an indispensable evil in Myanmar. The official bank change rate from Myanmar kyat to American dollars is six-to-one, but with a street money changer it is nine-hundred-to-one. So, you can pay fifty cents for a coke or you can pay ninety-five dollars for one. It’s totally up to you. The government wants Americans to pay the higher price, of course.

Secrecy shrouds changing money because the Junta arrests money changers. No advertising here, cautious money changers come equipped with cell phone, unmarked cars, and erratic delivery routes. You call ahead to find out the rising and falling exchange rate for the day and often talk to someone who then calls someone else. After guaranteeing their security, they make the drop.

But money changer demands are stiff . . . only new, unblemished, crisp bills that have no marks. That’s where I got into trouble.

A hundred-dollar bill with a slightly blemished picture of Benjamin Franklin, a tiny part of the right corner clipped, and a small black line doodled by some naive person on the front side. Mr. Franklin wasn’t sporting a mustache, I promise, but he might as well have been. That bill became known as “the unchangeable bill.”

I tried to exchange it at the hotel first because they are more helpful to tourists. The cashier pointed to the small mark on Mr. Franklin and asked me if I could give another one to exchange. Strike one.

Then, I slipped the bill behind several others at a store, hoping no one would notice the shuffle. The next day the store clerk returned it and asked for a new one because Mr. Franklin had a mustache. I was starting to feel like a money changer myself. Strike two.

I took Mr. Franklin to a dingy restaurant one evening and tried to pay for a small meal. I truthfully told the waiter it was the only money I had with me. Part of my sinister plan to rule the world, I suppose. Strike three. I was out. My taxi driver paid the bill and I sheepishly paid him back later.

Well, I could tell you more stories about trying to pay the airport tax, money changer cousins in Thailand, and other tries to exchange Mr. Franklin. All you need to know, though, is the money changers retired the side. At least nine different times I failed on my quest to get rid of the unchangeable bill.

What amazed me about the unchangeable bill is it represented the equivalent of three months salary for the common worker in Myanmar. One would think exchanging Mr. Franklin wouldn’t be hard at all.

At the end of World War II, Myanmar was the most prosperous countries in the region. Now she ranked as one of the poorest because of greedy government officials pillaging Myanmar’s rich, natural resources. A few years ago, salaries doubled and prices at the market followed suit. Months later, salaries returned to their original level, but store prices remained the same. Now, Myanmar doctors work two jobs trying to give their children a future.

Barring significant change, however, the children of Myanmar have little hope. Unless the Great Liberator sets them free from the Great Liar they will remain persecuted and poor. Believers cry to the God of the Exodus for deliverance from evil oppressors. Join us as we join them in prayer. Jesus loves nothing more than answering such prayers and bringing glory to His Father. Now is the time for Myanmar.



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