Myawaddy Bank is among scores of military-controlled businesses in Myanmar facing boycott pressures since the army ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi from power on February 1.

Demonstrators stand in line as they form a message with their t-shirts during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, February 22, 2021.
Demonstrators stand in line as they form a message with their t-shirts during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, February 22, 2021. (Reuters)

Early bird customers of a military-owned bank queued anxiously as dawn light crept over Yangon on Wednesday, after a strict new limit on daily cash withdrawals fuelled rumours of a money shortage in post-coup Myanmar.

Myawaddy Bank is among scores of military-controlled businesses in Myanmar facing boycott pressures since the generals ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi from power on February 1.

Nationwide protests have called for employees, including bank workers, to skip work, seizing up a banking sector heavily dominated by the military and its cronies ahead of the monthly payday this Friday.

For those in need of cash, it does not help that no clear information has been released.

In commercial hub Yangon, private banks remain mostly closed, government banks seem partly open, and getting cash from ATMs appears to be a touch-and-go endeavour.

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The uncertainty has fuelled worries of cash shortages, said Tun Naing, a 43-year-old businessman who has queued up daily for the past week to withdraw six million Myanmar kyat, or about $4,500, from his Myawaddy bank account.

"Because of rumours about this bank, I came to withdraw my money," he told AFP.

Despite being the sixth-biggest domestic bank in Myanmar, Myawaddy is only allowing 200 customers per branch to make withdrawals limited to 500,000 kyat a day, about $370.

Getting a spot in the morning is key, with "some people staying at nearby hotels to queue early for tokens," Tun Naing said.

Others are not so lucky.

Retired teacher Myint Myint has been queueing every day for a week but still has not been able to make a withdrawal.

"I'm really fed up," the 64-year-old told AFP.

"They should announce through (state-run media) that our money is okay... Although my savings are not much, I'm worrying because of rumours."

Despite the irregular opening schedules of banks across Yangon, a notice in state-run newspaper New Light of Myanmar claimed that daily services were still being provided.

"People are requested to take part in this process for ensuring economic stability of the country," read the Central Bank notice.

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'Elevated political risk' 

While the risk of cash shortages in the country is high, the timeframe is unpredictable, said Myanmar-born international business expert Htwe Htwe Thein from Australia's Curtin University.

"In the past under the previous military government, they had been known to print money and that of course hyped up inflation," she told AFP.

The pre-coup Myanmar economy was already facing severe economic headwinds from the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown measures.

And the situation is expected to get worse because of a civil disobedience movement that has government employees boycotting work.

The generals have already been hit with sanctions by the United States, Britain, Canada and the European Union, and the larger economy is also at risk of suffering reputational damage and a decline in foreign direct investment.

International credit ratings agency Fitch swiftly revised the country's growth estimates for most of 2021 down from 5.6 percent to 2 percent on the day of the coup, citing "elevated political risks."

A potential pause on foreign cash inflow has raised the alarm for activist group Justice for Myanmar, who say the generals could now dip into some $6.7 billion worth of Myanmar's foreign reserves.

So far, US sanctions have included a $1 billion asset freeze.

"If foreign banks continue to do business with these banks under military-control, they will be complicit in propping up the military regime," Justice for Myanmar said.

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'I have enough difficulties already' 

On the ground, the worries are more immediate, such as how companies will pay their employees at the end of the month or how the elderly will get their pensions as hundreds of thousands take to the streets to protest against the coup.

Aye Aye, 85, said between the unclear opening schedule of her bank and the demonstrators on the street, she is reluctant to withdraw her pension until the situation gets calmer.

"I will take it next month," she said, though it would likely put some pressure on her household as she cares for two ill relatives.

"I have enough difficulties already," she told AFP.

"As I'm old, I worry only for today."

Outside a Myawaddy branch on Tuesday, a lone security guard tried to calm a small crowd clamouring to withdraw their funds.

He shouted that company accounts were being prioritised so they can pay salaries.

"We will resume cash withdrawals after these companies [have done their withdrawals]," he announced at the bank gates, barring an anxious crowd from entering.

Meanwhile, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi will not travel to Myanmar to hold talks with the country's military leaderrs.

"After taking into account the current development and the input of other ASEAN countries this is not the ideal time to conduct a visit to Myanmar," Indonesian Foreign ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah told a news briefing on Wednesday.

G7 condemn 'intimidation'

The Group of Seven (G7) rich nations on Tuesday condemned intimidation and oppression of those opposing the coup.

"Anyone responding to peaceful protests with violence must be held to account," group foreign ministers said in a joint statement.

The army seized power after alleging fraud in Nov. 8 elections, detaining Suu Kyi and much of the party leadership. The electoral commission dismissed the fraud complaints.

The crisis raises the prospect of isolation and investor jitters just as the Covid-19 pandemic has undermined consumption and choked off tourism.

Military chief General Min Aung Hlaing, in a meeting with his ruling council on Monday, called for state spen ding and imports to be cut and exports increased.

"The council needs to put its energy into reviving the country's ailing economy. Economic remedy measures must be taken," state media quoted him a saying.

Min Aung Hlaing did not link the protests directly to economic problems but said the authorities were following a democratic path in dealing with them and police were using minimal force, such as rubber bullets, state media reported.

Security forces have shown more restraint compared with earlier crackdowns against people who had pushed for democracy during almost half a century of direct military rule.

Even so, three protesters have been shot and killed. The army has said one policeman died of injuries sustained during the protests.

The military has accused protesters of provoking violence but UN Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews said the millions who marched on Monday in a "breathtaking" turnout showed they were prepared to face up to military threats.

Western nations sought to increase pressure on the junta this week with the European Union warning it was considering sanctions that would target businesses owned by the army.

The United States imposed sanctions on two more members of the junta and warned it could take more action.

Myanmar's giant neighbour China, which has traditionally taken a softer line, said any international action should contribute to stability, promote reconciliation and avoid complicating the situation, media reported.

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Source: AFP