Over the past weekend, Myanmar’s armed forces staged a coup d’etat, arresting Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders of the National League for Democracy.
The crackdown has involved a nationwide blackout: TV, telecom, internet – all silenced.
Mobile money – immobilized.
Banking apps, fintech providers – shut down.
How long this will last is anyone’s guess. Perhaps by today some services will resume. Or next week. Or…
The military has a track record of suppressing elections (because they always lose them) and they engineered a bloody crackdown as recently as 2008.
Back then, there was no Facebook or mobile phones. Until 2014, a SIM card cost $1,500 because there was only one mobile operator, the government-owned Mynama Posts and Telecommunications. The reclusive junta had no interest in allowing people to communicate.
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The reforms that led to Suu Kyi’s freedom and a series of massive electoral victories have also ushered in a new society that is mobile-native and digital. Mobile penetration is over 90 percent, and more than 80 percent of the phones in Myanmar are smartphones.
The boom in the economy and the supercharged growth of Yangon go hand-in-hand with this digital revolution, a phenomenon that the military leadership probably has little clue about.
Today over 6 million people rely on KZBPay, the mobile app of the country’s largest bank. Among other services, users can use the app to cash in and out of the bank’s ATM network, as well as access buy-now pay-later installment loans.
Right now, these services are all on hold. Even bank ATMs aren’t working.
There are 1.3 million people a month who use Wave Money, a fintech launched in 2016. From a simple money-transfer mobile app, it has evolved into an embryonic superapp, seeing itself as the Burmese Grab or G-cash, building shopping, finance, gaming and other functions. Its owner, Yoma Bank, is plugging in loans, microinsurance and other services.
How will the population react to having their economic and social lives so curtly taken away? This isn’t Myanmar 2008. The Burmese people have tasted from the fruit of fintech: access to finance, empowerment embedded in consumer lifestyles, convenience, connection to one another and the outside world.
Take this away and the generals may find their habitual tactics no longer work. A momentary disruption can be smoothed over, but if this blackout lasts (for however long until it begins to matter) there will be consequences, ones impossible to predict.