Paper Money in Burma:
Creation, War, Restoration
Sean Turnell and Wylie Bradford Economics Department, Macquarie University Australia
Paper Presented to
‘Paper Money in Theory and Practice in History’ Conference, Barnard College, Columbia University New York, April 17.19, 2009
In 1930 an official report into the monetary arrangements of the British Empire noted the unusual degree to which trust had been established in paper money in Burma. Then a remote province of ‘British India’, the people of Burma seemed to prefer paper money over the otherwise ubiquitous silver rupee. Making the phenomenon rather more remarkable was the fact that Burma had been part of the Empire for less than fifty years, its people had had no prior experience with paper currency, nor did they enjoy any acquaintance whatsoever with the institutions generally associated with sound monetary arrangements.
From this promising start, however, trust in Burma’s paper monies would be sorely tested. Invaded by the Japanese in 1942, thereafter Burma was flooded with an occupation currency whose creation was for the sole purpose of extracting resources for Japan’s war effort as cheaply as possible. This currency was printed in vast quantities, and rapidly became worthless. Japan’s defeat brought about an end to this particular monetary disaster, but it also brought forward Burma’s independence from its colonial cage and, with it, the need to recreate a national currency for the new nation.
The purpose of this paper is to explore the background to the emergence of paper currency in Burma, the ways in which value in paper was undermined in the Second World War, and the efforts to restore the country’s monetary arrangements at the dawn of the country’s independence in 1948. These efforts would be successful, leaving a legacy that, in the light of the tragedy that is Burma today, is but a memory of what might have been.
JEL Classification: N25, E42, E5
In 1930 the Burma Provincial Banking Enquiry (BPBE) handed down its weighty 700 page report into the country’s monetary arrangements. Commissioned by the imperial authorities in New Delhi as a subset of an ‘all British India’ enquiry into money and finance, the BPBE found much in its myriad of findings to distinguish Burma from its peers. Especially noteworthy amongst these findings, however, was the wide acceptance of paper money. Paper currency notes, the BPBE reported, were greatly preferred to coin in Burma, a preference that applied to ‘ordinary people whose transactions are on a modest scale’, as much as large enterprise (Government of Burma [GoB] 1930:47). At the time the world’s most significant rice exporter, this and other of Burma’s principal crops were ‘bought almost entirely with notes’, and in the principal rise-growing areas ‘silver money [had] been largely replaced by paper’. Harvest time brought about a great annual expansion of the money supply in Burma, of which over 95 per cent was typically in the form of paper money (GoB 1930:47).
In this article we chronicle the trajectory of paper money in Burma, from its introduction upon Burma’s absorption into Britain’s Indian empire in the nineteenth century, through the years of Indian monetary reform, the Japanese invasion in 1942, and into the period of post-war reconstruction. Along the way we examine the devices employed throughout this era to create value in these paper currencies . via various monetary standards, a currency board, to that which (in the Second World War) was imposed quite explicitly out of the barrel of a gun. Of course, side by side with this monetary journey was one taken by Burma politically, as a re-emerging national identity gathered force . even if, in the years covered here, Burma’s monetary arrangements were largely decided upon by others.
The argument thus outlined is examined below in four parts, with Part II taking up the narrative of Burma’s monetary system as it was created as a subset of that established for British India. Part III details the destruction of this system following Japan’s invasion of Burma in 1942, and its subsequent occupation. The most damaging element of this occupation, in terms of its monetary aspect, was the unconstrained printing of an occupation currency in such volumes that hyperinflation was well-entrenched by wars’ end. Part IV examines the efforts to restore faith in paper money in the post-war period via the creation of the Burma Currency Board. This period would be but a brief interlude on the way to Burma’s independence in 1948, but the efforts to restore monetary stability in the country were largely successful. Part V concludes.
II. Early Monetary Arrangements in Colonial Burma
At the conclusion of the third Anglo-Burmese war in 1885, Burma as a whole came to be a component of the monetary and financial system of British India. This was,
coincidentally, just in time for the implementation of the Indian Paper Currency Act of 1882, the belated outcome of the (many) inquiries commissioned on Indian monetary affairs throughout the nineteenth century, and designed to bring India on to the gold standard.
In fact what would emerge from the 1882 Act was India’s celebrated ‘gold-exchange’ standard. This system, famously celebrated by Keynes as constituting a ‘second stage of monetary evolution’ in the escape from commodity money, was based upon the recognition that so long as there was confidence that a currency could ultimately be converted into gold, gold itself did not need to physically circulate within a country in order to realise the benefits a gold standard currency could bring (Keynes 1913, pp.17.18). Thus, following the 1882 Act, the rupee became a token currency only, but convertible at a fixed rate into sterling and gold. This ‘exchange rate’ was set at one rupee per 7.53344 grams of fine gold, which implied a rupee-sterling exchange of Rs 15 to ￡1 (or 1s. 4d. per rupee).1 At this point British India was without a central bank, its rupee notes issued and backed (via a mix of gold and silver coin, bullion, as well as both rupee and sterling securities) by the Government of India.
British India’s rupee currency notes were distributed within ‘circles’ centred on the provincial capitals. This was not only for efficiency of distribution, but also because of the fear that confidence in the paper currency could be shaken by the emergence of localised note shortages or surpluses according to the different agricultural seasons. With the absorption of Burma these circles expanded to seven, with centres at Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Karachi, Cawnpore, Lahore and Rangoon (Kumar 1983:769). The currency notes had the status of legal tender, but only within the circles within which they were distributed. As such, British India was something less than a ‘unified currency area’. The currency notes were issued in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500, 1,000, and 10,000 rupees, though neither the 1,000 nor 10,000 notes were physically available in the Rangoon circle. The Burma notes were identical to the Indian notes in most respects, the principal difference being the inscription of ‘Rangoon’ (in green letters) as the city of issue (Robinson and Shaw 1980:102).2
In terms of precious metal ‘backing’, the arrangements for the Burma notes were no different to those applying to India proper. An interesting peculiarity with respect to the circumstances in Burma, however, was the operation of the ‘currency chest’ system. This arrangement, which was consistent with the generalised precious-metal ‘association’ of the gold-exchange standard, required the provincial government of Burma to maintain stocks of silver (coin) in vaults throughout the country (the ‘chests’) which could be acquired with paper notes . at any time, by any person, and at the requisite rate of exchange. Thus the removal of silver from the currency chests brought about an equivalent decrease in paper rupees in circulation, while an increase
1 Prior to decimalization in 1971, ￡1 sterling was made up of twenty shillings (s.) which, in turn, was equal to twelve pennies (d.). Keynes’s championing of India’s gold exchange standard was the theme of his first book, Indian Currency and Finance (1913), and the subject of his strong advocacy during his membership of the 1910 ‘Royal Commission on Indian Finance and Currency’. The latter Keynes was dominated intellectually by Keynes, who also argued for the creation of a central bank for India and an ‘elastic’ note issue that could expand and contract according to the needs of trade. For a further discussion of some of these issues, especially as they related to Burma, see Turnell (2007) and (2009). 2 At various times, on certain denominations, the inscription of the city of issue was replaced by a single initial . ‘R’ for Rangoon, ‘C’ for Calcutta and so on.
in the silver content of the chests brought about an automatic increase in rupee paper. Overall, the system (which functioned throughout the colonial era proper) was a most effective and practical way of demonstrating trust in Burma’s paper currencies (GoB 1930:48.49).
The exchange level of the rupee was to be something of an idee fixe in the monetary history of British India (though curiously not in Burma itself) . a fact that clouded the ‘more basic problem’ of a still undeveloped banking system that hindered the creation of an elastic money supply responsive to seasonal (and other) needs (Kumar 1983, p.774). Such a system required at its centre an appropriately constituted central bank, but progress at creating such an institution was glacial. This was not for a want of ‘plans’, the appearance of which was more or less a constant, beginning with Warren Hasting’s conception for a ‘General Bank of Bengal and Bihar’ in 1773. Many other plans followed, before forming what Kumar (1983, p.789) described as a familiar ‘bureaucratic cycle of enthusiastic initiatives, prolonged discussions… objections, and finally, postponement to a more propitious future occasion’.
The Reserve Bank of India
Something of a milestone appeared on this long and winding road in 1935, however, with the creation of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) as the central bank for both India and Burma. A privately-owned (shareholder) institution modelled on the Bank of England, the RBI was divided into ‘issue’ and ‘banking’ departments. The Issue Department was given sole responsibility for note issue in the whole of British India. It also managed the reserves backing these notes. The reserves were conservatively apportioned to include ‘no less than’ 40 percent of the note issue as gold and/or sterling securities. Yet, there was room for an elastic note issue . with up to 25 percent of the reserves being allowed to consist of rupee securities. As Sayer’s (1952, p.227) noted, this allowed for quite substantial monetary ‘accommodation’ during the early years of the RBI when it handled the affairs of Burma.
Adding an additional ‘elastic’ component to the note issue arrangements were the activities of the Banking Department which (like its namesake at the Bank of England), engaged in a range of activities that could considerably ease (or tighten) monetary conditions. These included directly lending to the Indian and Provincial governments (including Burma’s, but only for terms of up to three months), and lending to commercial banks and credit cooperatives. The RBI also carried the full array of instruments then considered ‘normal’ for influencing domestic monetary conditions . including a ‘bank rate’ at which the RBI would be prepared to rediscount bills of exchange and other eligible securities. In practice this facility was little used, with the RBI soon establishing a bank rate of 3 per cent which then remained constant for 15 years. According to Sayers (1952, p.228), ‘the only regular customer of the Bank [in this context] was the Government’, and there was little in the way of large-scale discounting of bills with the RBI.
Separation from India
In April 1937, the implementation of the Government of Burma Act (1935) brought about the long-awaited separation of Burma from British India. But the RBI continued to be Burma’s central bank following partition, and maintained its presence in Burma via its one branch in Rangoon. The separation of Burma from British India necessitated legislation to amend the RBI Act, however, and this emerged in the India and Burma (Burma Monetary Arrangements) Order, 1937.
The 1937 Order required the RBI to issue, as soon as possible after separation, ‘bank notes of distinctive design, to be known as Burma bank notes’.3 Under the 1937 Order, the RBI had sole right of note issue . the government of Burma being expressly forbidden from issuing its own notes. The first distinctive Burma notes were issued in May 1938. The name ‘rupee’ was retained as the official name of Burma’s currency. In the earliest notes issued (the five and ten rupee notes, issued in May and June 1938 respectively) ‘rupees’ appeared unadorned, however in later issues (such as the 1,000 rupee note, issued in July 1939) the distinction ‘Burma Rupees’ appears. The notes bore the name of the ‘Reserve Bank of India’ as issuer, but also the inscription that the Bank’s promise to pay applied to ‘any office of issue in Burma’ only . in other words, the Burma notes were not legal tender in India. The notes were inscribed in three languages . English, Burmese and Shan. By July 1939 there were five denominations of Burma notes in circulation (5, 10, 100, 1,000 and 10,000 Burma rupees). All featured King George VI on one side but, giving them the required ‘distinctive design’, featured on the obverse side various Burmese motifs . of peacocks, elephants, tigers, sailing vessels and ox-carts.4
The RBI did not keep separate reserve ‘backing’ against its Burma currency note liabilities. Rather, a consolidated reserve for the note issue of both India and Burma persisted beyond separation. Section 7 of the 1937 Order, however, provided for the division of the reserves should the RBI cease to function as Burma’s central bank . in which case, there would ‘be transferred from the Issue Department of the Bank to the government of Burma assets which (…) have together a value equal to the total liability in respect of the Burma notes outstanding’.
III. Japanese Invasion and Occupation Currencies
On March 7 1942, Rangoon fell to the forces of Imperial Japan. On May 1 Mandalay followed, and what remained of the Burmese colonial government evacuated Burma for exile in the ‘hill-station’ of Simla, India.5 In a matter of months British rule in Burma had come to an end in a cataclysm of destruction, death and immense suffering. As we shall see, the British would return temporarily after the war, but a chapter of Burmese history had assuredly come to a close.
As they had done elsewhere in the territories they occupied, the Japanese military had ready a ‘military scrip’ to act as an interim currency in Burma. Initially old Burma rupees were allowed to continue to circulate, but soon the mere possession of them was taken as a sign of probable pro-British sympathies. In March 1942 an order from the Hayashi Army Group, the Japanese force occupying Burma, decreed that ‘[m]easures must be taken to prevent the circulation of the Indian [and Burmese] rupee…[and] all possible measures must be taken to maintain the monetary value of
3 ibid., s.6. 4 Reproductions of these notes can be seen throughout Robinson and Shaw (1980).
5 For details of the Japanese invasion of Burma, see Bayly and Harper (2004), Allen (1984) and WonZoon Yoon (1973) . as but three of a large and growing literature.
military certificates’.6 The military notes issued for Burma were also called ‘rupees’, but they were referred to by the Japanese in Burmese as kyat -the old Burmese name for the silver coins issued by King Mindon (pre-colonial Burma’s penultimate monarch) which had been equal in value to the Indian rupee. Of course, the name was deliberately employed to make the new ‘currency’ more acceptable, and a gesture to the fiction that the Japanese had arrived as liberators from colonialism. This new Burmese rupee (henceforth Japanese Military [JM] rupee) was also now a decimal unit, eventually being divided into 100 ‘cents’ (called pya in Burmese, again as an historical allusion) rather than the ‘annas’ of the old (India-based) order.
In terms of physical appearance, lower denomination JM rupees were almost identical in design and size to notes issued for other occupied territories in (what was then) the Dutch East Indies, Malaya and the Philippines. Higher denomination notes were the same size in the different regions, but featured designs unique to each of the occupied territories. In the case of Burma the notes featured pagodas . offensive to many Burmese, who regarded such depictions as ‘impious’. According to British intelligence, the notes were also unpopular because the paper they were printed on was poor, the colours ran, the notes did not bear the usual ‘promise to pay’ moniker, and they lacked any link to a metallic standard (Burma Intelligence Bureau [BIB] 1943, p.69).7
A most significant feature of the Japanese military currencies in all the occupied territories was that they were issued at par with each other and against the Japanese yen. Thus 1 yen was equal to one JM rupee, one Philippines peso, one Straights dollar, one East Indies guilder, and so on. This was meant to facilitate trade in what was called, after all, the ‘Co-Prosperity Sphere’. Of course there was very little trade between the constituent parts of the ‘sphere’ . excepting the enormous resource flows from the occupied periphery to the centre of the Japanese war machine in Japan itself. These flows, however, were enriching for none except this centre and, in the end, not even it.
If potential trade facilitation was one reason for the creation of the military scrips, then a far more important one was that, by issuing its own currency, the Japanese occupiers could fund their war without drawing on domestic sources of capital and without disturbing Japan’s own monetary system. Once established and able to command resources in the occupied territories, the military currencies allowed Japan to be ‘insulated’ against the overseas costs of its war (Longmuir 2002, p.31). A contemporary official Japanese source succinctly described the ‘value’ of the system, and its differences vis-a-vis standard currency arrangements:
'General Plan for the Control of the Occupied Areas under the Hayashi Army Group', Order by the Commander of the Hayashi Army Group, 15 March 1942. This document is reproduced in Trager (1966, pp.45-52)7 The Burma Intelligence Bureau was staffed essentially by former Burma Government officials and, with most of the rest of the 'government in exile', was based in Simla, India. Amongst its members were prominent Burmese including U Tin Tut, U Kyaw Min, U Hpu, U Ba Tin and Daw Mya Sein (Cady 1958, p.479).
There is no law mandating its circulation. Thus in the strict sense it is not currency. It is a certificate with no time limit, no interest and no signature, and only to the extent that a creditor accepts it as payment is it effective in concluding a settlement.8
Naturally, under the military occupation there was no question of a creditor not accepting the script as payment.
The JM rupees were initially issued through the Yokohama Specie Bank, a Japanese ‘semi-official’ commercial bank that had been expelled at the onset of the war, but which had now returned to Burma along with the Japanese troops. In April 1943, however, this function was taken over by the Nampo Kaihatsu Kinko, or Southern Regions Development Bank (SRDB). Formed in March 1942, the SRDB was created in order to function as a ‘central bank’ for the occupied territories in south-east Asia. Capitalised at 100 million yen, it was to be responsible for regulating the note issue throughout the region, for helping to finance the regional governments, and even to be a source of funds for long-term development.9 It was the institution charged with fulfilling the army’s instructions of maintaining the value of JM rupees and the other occupation scrips. This was, as shall be seen, a task it singularly failed to achieve.
Japan’s Defeat, and the British Return
Japan’s occupation of Burma lasted a scant three years, but its ending was just as destructive and tragic as its arrival had been. Allied forces re-took Burma in a series of campaigns from late 1944. 10 These campaigns culminated in the recapture of Rangoon on May 2, 1945, but not before heavy and bitter fighting had laid waste to what remained of Burma’s physical infrastructure and economic capacity. Reconstruction and rehabilitation would be the first order of business for Burma’s returning colonial administration, but this government was itself something of a spent force. Events would soon dictate that its primary role (however reluctantly) would be to create the circumstances for Burma’s independence, and an orderly transfer of power. Delivering on this, however, would not prove to be easy.
On the monetary side, the most vexing question facing the returning British was what to do about the now vast quantities of JM rupees that had been put into circulation. It is doubtful that the exact total of JM rupees printed and circulated in Burma will ever be known, but a contemporary Japanese estimate that only came to light in 1979 put it at 5.7 billion.11 This figure, which refers to the value of JM rupees issued (rather than the physical number of notes) has become the generally accepted ‘ballpark’ figure by the few who have written on the issue.12 It is a substantial increase over the figure of
3.5 billion rupees estimated by Arthur Potter (Financial Commissioner in the pre-war government of Burma) in April 1945, but it is broadly consistent with Donnison’s
8 The source was the Reference Book on Military Scrip, issued by Japan's Ministry of Finance inJanuary 1941. It is here cited from Swan (1989, p.315). 9 'Outline of Administration in Occupied Areas',
10 There is a vast and (rapidly) growing literature on the Burma campaign, and one that suggests the oft-used label the ‘forgotten war’ is a tad exaggerated. For a most comprehensive examination of the battles and issues mentioned in this paragraph, however, see Allen (1984) and Bayley and Harper (2004). 11 This estimate, which is derived from Japanese army authorities based in Moulmein, is cited byRobinson and Shaw (1980, p.117). 12 See, for instance, Longmuir (2002, pp.42-43) and Robinson and Shaw (1980, pp.117-118).
assertion (1956, pp.222-223) that a great surge of printing of JM rupees occurred in the last three months of the war. The following tabulation, derived from Fujita (1979, p.8) and segregated according to estimated issue-dates, is probably as accurate as any could be on the printing of JM rupees.13 The dramatic acceleration of printing in the latter stages of the war is readily apparent:
Table 1: JM Rupees Issued (by Value) 1942-1945
Of course all of this fuelled an extraordinary inflation of prices. According to Andrus (1948, p.297), ‘prices had become so high as practically to ruin salaried people and to cause barter to increase in importance…’. Earl Mountbatten (1951, p.193), then Supreme Allied Commander Southeast Asia (within whose sphere of operations the Burmese theatre came under) observed:
It was not until Rangoon had fallen, and the major part of Burma had been reconquered, that we were able to appreciate the extent of the financial and economic collapse of the country. The inflationary tendencies, which had been developing under the Japanese occupation, had reached their peak. A pair of bullocks and a cart, which had sold in 1942 for 180 rupees, were now selling for 20,000 [JM] rupees…a bicycle for 10,000 rupees, and the price of all necessities of life had risen in proportion.
By 1945 JM rupees were little more than worthless. Arthur Potter, returning to Rangoon soon after the city’s recapture by British forces, found vast quantities of them stacked in the Reserve Bank of India building (whose vaults had been used by the SRDB) (Robinson and Shaw 1080, p.117). A British soldier arriving in Pyapon District in August 1945 testified to a similar experience,
I found the Treasury vault entirely full of Japanese notes; I left the doors open and invited people to help themselves. For some months afterwards there was a small local industry making children’s hats, little windmills and similar objects from the notes.14
The collapse in the value of JM rupees at the end of the war also created some unexpected and tragic victims. The following account of Won-loy Chan (1986, pp.96-97), a Chinese-American soldier serving with US forces in the Burma campaign, relates the desperate plight of a group of so-called ‘comfort women’ (as the Japanese
13 This table is also reproduced in Robinson and Shaw (1980, 118). 14 cited in Robinson and Shaw (1980, pp.126-127).
euphemism had it) . mostly Korean and enslaved for sexual services by the Japanese Army, who he stumbled upon in August 1944. Won-loy Chan narrated an encounter between himself and a ‘Mama-san’ (an elderly Japanese woman in charge of the group) who had just revealed to the Americans the bundles of JM rupees paid to the women as ‘tips’:
…I picked up a bundle of the money. The bills were each for ten rupees…they were Japanese occupation scrip. Some thing like our own scrip used in Europe and Asia, it was a paper promise by the Japanese government to pay by some unspecified date the amount of ten Burmese rupees. With the loss of northern Burma and what appeared the eventual total defeat of the Imperial forces, the scrip was undoubtedly worthless…I slowly placed the bundles back on the ground in front of the Mama-san….looked at the girls, shrugged, and then as gently as I could explained to the old lady that what she had was money printed by the Japanese and now that the Japanese had been defeated, the money was worthless…
Mama-san explained the whole caper to her girls. Some laughed, some cried, and when I thought what these girls had endured to earn this worthless scrip I was heartsick.
The prolific printing of JM rupees, and its accompanying inflation, presented the returning British with the dilemma of whether or not to accord any value to the currency. It was a dilemma which bounced between the Government in exile in Simla, the British Treasury, the British War Office, the Colonial Office, the Bank of England, as well as the newly-formed Civil Affairs Service (Burma), throughout 1943-44. It was finally resolved in December 1944 with the decision to ‘demonetise’ (to use a word that would make regular and unfortunate appearances in Burma’s monetary history in the years ahead). Some discretion, however, was allowed to individual military commanders in the field to accept small payments ‘both for relief supplies and government dues of any kind’ (Donnison 1956, p.222).
The decision to demonetise the Japanese-occupation currencies was based on a number of considerations. Firstly, given that the war was not yet over when the choice was made, it was argued that demonetisation would have the effect of reducing still further Japan’s ability to access resources (physical and human), and to negate in other ways acts detrimental to Britain’s war efforts. In Donnison’s (1956, p.223) evocative words, ‘the giving of value to the Japanese currencies would put into the hands of the enemy a strong power to buy treachery behind the forces of reoccupation’ (emphasis added). Secondly, there was the inflation question. Giving value to the Japanese-occupation currencies would merely perpetuate the problem, and visit its effects upon whatever replacement currency the British came up with. Finally, Burma was one of the first territories to be reoccupied in the mainland theatre of the Pacific war. Decisions made with respect to currency matters in Burma, accordingly, would set precedents elsewhere. For the British this included Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong . the latter particularly troubling since the Japanese-occupation currency circulating there was identical to much of that circulating in China, and raising the prospect that the colony ‘would be inundated with Japanese currency from the Chinese mainland’ (Longmuir 2002, p.90). To recognise or not to recognise Burma’s Japanese occupation currencies then was a dilemma of high stakes, with potentially far-reaching implications.
Against these considerations was the obvious suffering a decision to ‘demonetise’ would bring to the people of Burma. On the surface, those most harmed by a decision to demonetise would be those holding large numbers of JM rupees . holdings that were regarded by some amongst the returning British as ‘likely in most cases to be the result of profiteering or collaboration’ (Donnison 1956, p.223). This would not be the case universally, however, since most of the population, even if they held no substantial holdings of the currency, had had no choice but to use it to conduct the normal business of life (as the example above of the sex-slaves indicates). Noting these concerns, Donnison (1956, p.223) suggested that inflation and poverty limited the damage . ‘the poorer people, particularly in villages, turned over such cash as came into their hands so quickly that their balances of Japanese currency at any given time were unlikely to represent more than a very small proportion of their wealth’. Whatever the truth or otherwise of this assessment, the broader strategic element would prove decisive.
IV: Re-Establishing Paper Money: The Currency Board
In 1947 the wartime chaos of Burma’s monetary arrangements came to an end with the establishment of the Burma Currency Board (BCB). For all practical purposes an ‘invention of the British Empire’, currency boards came to be the favoured instrument of monetary management throughout the Empire after the Second World War (Williamson 1995, p.5). By the late 1940s there were around fifty currency boards operating around the world, most in various colonial dependencies.
Planning the Currency Board
The idea that Burma should have a currency board after the war, rather than a note-issuing central bank, was a decision made before the Second World War had ended. In February 1944, well-before Burma had been retaken from the Japanese (and even before such an outcome was anything like a fait accompli), Sir Otto Niemeyer, the famed Bank of England adviser who had investigated India’s currency arrangements in the 1930s, wrote to the then ‘Financial Adviser’ to the colonial government of Burma, W.A. Iliffe, that whilst he believed there was no reason why Burma could not have its own currency after the war, ‘the idea of a Central Bank of Burma was impracticable because Burma had not a sufficiently broad financial base to support a reserve bank’.15 Niemeyer’s counsel was consistent with a general scheme of advice then emerging from the Burmese government in exile in Simla, increasingly anxious to devise mechanisms by which prewar commercial certainties in Burma (such as a trusted, stable, currency), could be quickly restored. In any case, the Reserve Bank of India had indicated before the end of the Japanese occupation that they were unwilling to resume their functions as the bank of issue in Burma.16
Of course, what was also inescapable in all of this, though we have no direct evidence to the effect that the BCB was specifically seen in this light . was that a currency board arrangement was also highly consistent with Britain’s emerging plans for Burma politically after the war. If 1944 was the year that Niemeyer and his colleagues in the British Treasury started to contemplate Burma’s post-war monetary affairs, it
15 Niemeyer to Iliffe, 9 February 1944, BoE, OV 79/1.
16 ‘Burma Currency Board’, memorandum by P.L. Hogg, 30 December 1953, BoE, OV 79/2.
was also the year that the British government more broadly began to plan Burma’s postwar political arrangements. As it turned out, these arrangements (informally expressed in a ‘blueprint’ issued by Britain’s Conservative Party in 1944, and officially in a White Paper released in 1945), were to offer Burma a measure of sovereignty considerably less than that which had been offered even before the war (Thant Myint-U 2006, pp.241-242). The details and controversies need not detain us unduly here. Suffice to say, however, that the upshot of these documents was that Burma’s 1937 Constitution would not come into force until 1948 . up until which time the country would be ruled by the Governor and his council. This period of direct rule was meant to be one in which Burma’s productive capacities were restored, critical infrastructure was rebuilt, and the conditions made ripe for the return and continued participation in the economic life of Burma by British capital. A currency board, located in London and by its very nature aimed at protecting the value of financial claims and ensuring convertibility, was an ideal institution to accompany these ends.
In May 1946 the Governor’s Executive Council took the formal decision to establish the BCB, and a series of meetings quickly followed between the Bank of England (BoE) and various colonial government officials. 17 These meetings, and the ‘drafting committee’ that derived from them, were dominated, however, by Raymond Kershaw, the BoE’s chief representative, who urged the creation of an institution that would resemble as much as possible the West African Currency Board . the model upon which almost all of the postwar colonial currency boards were fashioned. Very much the BoE’s expert in the field of currency boards, Kershaw had been especially recruited as early as 1929 by the BoE’s Governor, Montagu Norman, and given the ‘new and formidable task’ of equipping ‘the emergent Commonwealth with the necessary financial machinery’ it would need in the post-gold standard world (Boyle 1967, p.284).
The most important policy question considered during the meetings of the drafting committee to establish the BCB concerned the question of reserves coverage. Under an orthodox currency board arrangement there was a simple answer to this of course . reserves of the anchor currency (sterling) had to be at least sufficient to cover 100 per cent of the domestic currency on issue. However, Burma’s circumstances brought complications . primarily; what to do about the notes issued before the war which had escaped destruction during the conflict, and which were still circulating, and; what to do about the notes (another military scrip) subsequently issued by the British Military Administration (BMA) during the ‘interregnum’ between the defeated Japanese and the return of the colonial government? Since these currencies, unlike the Japanese wartime scrip, were liabilities of the British crown there could be no question of outright demonetisation. And yet, should reserve coverage for such currencies be the responsibility of the proposed BCB, which might under the best of circumstances struggle to have sufficient reserves?
For Kershaw there was only one solution to the problem. Burma’s currency board arrangements would have to depart from orthodoxy and contain within them a
The ‘council of moderates’ as described by the Governor, Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith (Collis 1956:258). The Burmese members of the Executive Council were led by Sir Paw Tun, who had briefly been (colonial) Burma’s war-time Prime Minister. ‘Burma Currency’, R.N. Kershaw, 4 June 1946, BoE, OV 79/1.
fiduciary element. This element, which Kershaw labelled ‘Y’, he deemed as particularly necessary with respect to the pre-war currency issues (known as ‘old Burma notes’), the precise amount of which were extant was unknown. Curiously, however, Kershaw also initially called for an additional fiduciary element (which he referred to as ‘X’), which would have allowed the BCB to extend currency to commercial banks according to seasonal demands. He stipulated, however, that his proposed X element be both of a modest dimension, be capped at a fixed amount, and could in no way be used to finance the expenditure of the government. Providing ‘backing’ to any X issue would be ad-hoc government securities, created for this express purpose. The fiduciary element Y, on the other hand, was to be gradually whittled down under Kershaw’s schema . using any sterling profits made by the BCB to ‘buy it back’ over time.18
Kershaw’s ‘X element’ turned out to be a step too far from orthodoxy for the other members of the BCB’s drafting committee. The British Treasury representative on the committee, Norman Young, urged a ‘wait and see’ approach on the issue of reserves since the question would ‘depend on the fiduciary policy adopted for the whole sterling area’.19 In the end, the Committee apparently decided to leave this clause of the Draft Bill (clause 29) blank. As events would demonstrate (below), various agreements were at this precise moment being reached in confidence between the British Government and the likely leaders of the newly independent government of Burma that would allow for a fiduciary element with respect to ‘old Burma notes’, and British backing for the BMA issues.
There seems never to have been any question that the BCB would be physically located anywhere but in London. Precisely where in London, however, generated a lot of discussion. One school of thought proposed that it should be based within the Bank of England . ‘this might appeal to Burma’s prestige and sentiments’.20 Another, based upon the same reasoning of appealing to Burmese sentiment thought the reverse . that the BCB should be housed in premises of its own, and ‘would thus appear to be running independently and unconnected in any way with His Majesty’s Government’.21 In the end an independent location was chosen in London for the BCB’s Head Office. A ‘representative office’ was subsequently established in Rangoon.
The formal drafting of the law establishing the BCB commenced in August 1946. Kershaw was the principal author, but he was greatly aided in the process by U Tin Tut. The ‘brightest Burmese official of his generation’, U Tin Tut had been Secretary of Finance in 1939, but is perhaps most revered in Burma today as the principal author of independent Burma’s first constitution (Thant Myint-U 2006, p.252).22 At the time of his work on the BCB, U Tin Tut was a member of the Burma Executive Council. A trusted adviser of Burma’s revered independence hero, Aung San, U Tin Tut was was Minister of Foreign Affairs and finally Inspector General of the Armed
18 ‘Minutes of the 14th Meeting, Draft Currency Bill’, 3 July 1946, BoE, OV 79/1.
19 ibid. 20 ibid. 21 ibid.
22 U Tin Tut’s family was especially prominent in the early history of Burma after independence, and he was just one of four brothers who each became brilliant barristers, judges and civil servants.
Forces in Burma’s first post-independence government. U Tin Tut was assassinated in mysterious circumstances in 1948 (Mya Maung 1991, p.73).
The Currency Board is Established
The BCB formally came into operation on 1 April 1947, eight months before Burma’s formal independence. Established under the Currency and Coinage Act, 1946 (Burma Act XLV of the British Parliament), its provisions more or less reflected the deliberations of the drafting committee. Its main features included:
Currency . Under Section 10 of the Currency and Coinage Act (hereafter the ‘Act’) the Burmese rupee was created as the currency of Burma. The rupee was divided into 16 annas and was fixed against sterling at the traditional rate of ‘one shilling and sixpence’ (1s.6d.).
The notes themselves came in denominations of 1, 5, 10 and 100 rupees and were designed ‘by four eminent Burmese artists’. All notes featured the traditional Burmese ‘chinthe’ on one side and a peacock (as ‘watermark’) on the other. The notes bore the signature of the chairman of the BCB. Inscriptions on the front of the notes were entirely in Burmese, although the back of the notes bore the imprint ‘Government of the Union of Burma’ in English. Delays in producing the notes at the De la Rue works (in London) meant that the initial circulation of BCB notes was in fact Indian notes overprinted with the words ‘Burma Currency Board, Legal Tender in Burma Only’ (Burma Currency Board [BCB] 1948).
Conversion of Burmese rupees into sterling was guaranteed (under Section 15 of the Act) at the settled exchange rate . in London or at the BCB’s office in Rangoon.
Reserves coverage: Under Section 25 (2) of the Act a fiduciary issue of 10 ‘crores’ (100 million) Burmese rupees, backed only by securities issued by the government of Burma, was allowed. This issue (equivalent to Kershaw’s ‘Y’ element) was both limited in amount and purpose . specifically created to cover the BCB’s liability to redeem ‘outstanding issues of Old Burma and
B.M.A notes’. The precise amount of the former in circulation was unknown at the time (as shall be revealed below, ‘Old Burma Notes’ were redeemed in far larger quantities than guessed at in 1947).
Beyond this Rs 10 million, the remaining issue had to be covered by sterling or sterling securities.23 To bring this about the British government transferred sterling assets of ￡31.3 million and undertook ‘to provide…such further sums as may be necessary to bring up the sterling held by the Board to the amount required to cover in full all notes in excess of 10 crores issued before 1st April 1950’. In its first annual report the BCB estimated that the fiduciary component would not exceed 20 percent of the note issue . thus implying minimum sterling cover for the Burmese rupee of 80 percent (BCB 1948).
Hidden from contemporary external observers with regard to the ‘coverage question’ were the details of a ‘confidential annexe’ to the 1947 Financial Agreement between the British government and the government of Burma (the Act settling the financial arrangements between the departing British and the
23 Including cash, cash on deposit in banks authorized by the currency board, in British Government treasury bills or other securities and in securities of the Government’s of other British Dominions.
incoming Burmese government). Under this annexe . which was kept from all except the inner circles of both governments, the British ‘agreed to provide full backing for new Burmese rupee notes issued against BMA currency handed in to the Currency Board before 1 April 1950, in excess of [the] fiduciary issue of 10 crores of rupees’. In other words, all BMA notes were covered by sterling reserves. The final redemption date was subsequently postponed by successive stages to 1 April 1952, and the final British liability agreed at ￡3.3 million.24
. The governing Board of the BCB was appointed by the Governor of Burma and consisted of five appointees. Two positions were reserved for ‘persons born and domiciled within the dominions of his majesty in Burma, of parents habitually resident in Burma, and not established there for temporary purposes only’.25 The wording was to ensure non-European representation, but avoided the use of divisive racial categories.
Performance of the Currency Board
The period of the currency board’s tenure, 1947-1952, was one of great turmoil and disorder in Burma.26 Yet, as we shall see, even one of the BCB’s harshest critics, Tun Wai, conceded (1962, pp.221-222), that in the face of these convulsions the BCB presided over a period of extraordinary ‘monetary stability’. Table 2 below paints the picture:
Table 2: Selected Monetary Indicators 1948-1952 (Rs. millions)
* As at 30 September. Source: IMF (1966).
As can be seen from the data above, steady progress was the overriding narrative in the broad monetary sphere in Burma under the BCB. International reserves increased progressively, a function of the growing demand and high prices for Burma’s paddy and other commodity exports. This same phenomenon (the result of the postwar commodities boom and the ‘spike’ in demand during Korean war) was responsible
24 The ‘Confidential Annex’ is included in the memorandum ‘Burma Currency Board’, by P.L. Hogg, 30 December 1953, BoE OV 79/2. Instructions to the effect that the Annex had to be kept frommembers of the Commonwealth is contained in a British Treasury memorandum, ‘Burmese Financial Position’, 5 February 1949, NAUK, Treasury Documents, ‘Burma Currency Board, 1947-1949’,T236/3557. 25 Burma Currency Board (1947).
26 A state of civil war, fuelled by ethnic separatism and communist insurgency, enveloped much ofBurma in these early independence years. For more, see Myat Thein (2004), Tinker (1961), and Tucker(2001).
both for the extraordinary growth in the earnings of Burma’s state export boards and . via them . the strong surpluses recorded by the government. Of course, this latter phenomenon is critical to any assessment of the BCB. As shall be examined shortly, a principal criticism of the BCB was that its rigid reserve requirements would unnecessarily inhibit Burma’s economic development by starving the state of resources. Yet, as is readily apparent, the state in Burma was not short of financial resources during the tenure of the BCB. It is true that the ambitious ‘Two-Year Plan for the Economic Development of Burma’, the seminal statement of Burma’s economic aspirations announced at the time of Burma’s independence, failed in implementation (GoB 1948). This failure, however, was not due to the lack of financial resources allowed to the state by the BCB, but simply to the fact that so much of the plan could not be implemented (as the government itself later admitted) in the face of the insurrections and disorder of these years (GoB 1961b:1). During the BCB years a lack of ‘money’ was the least of the problems facing Burma’s government.
BMA and ‘Old Burma’ Note Redemption
If column inches in its annual reports are any guide, the BCB devoted almost as much time and effort into redeeming (and removing from circulation) the BMA and ‘Old Burma’ notes during its existence, as it did with issuing its own currency. As noted above, the BCB’s fiduciary issue of Rs 100 million was meant to account both for the BMA notes in circulation, as well as the Old Burma notes. Of course, this figure was always something of an ambit, based on the following estimates of the distribution of all notes circulating in Burma (as presented in the first of the BCB Annual Reports [BCB 1948]):
BMA Notes: 88,804,360 Old Burma Notes: 9,128,786 BCB Notes: 237,633,698
Redeeming the BMA notes did not pose any great difficulty . they were a known quantity and they were not only ‘covered’ by the fiduciary issue, but also by the ‘confidential annexe’ arrangements noted above. The ‘old Burma notes’, on the other hand, proved a more intractable problem. The original BCB estimate above, of Rs 9.1 million, proved far short of the mark, and in each and every year of the BCB’s Annual Reports there were repeated attempts to explain dramatic variations in the notes that actually appeared for redemption. In 1950 the Burmese government even announced that henceforth they would ‘demonetise’ all remaining old notes. The government ultimately backed down from this threat in the face of public opposition, and that of the Chairman of the BCB, Sir Sydney Turner, who minuted on 5 April 1950 that he thought there was ‘a real danger of discrediting the whole of the currency if the notification is left in the form proposed by the Minister of Finance’.27 A compromise was eventually reached in which redemptions could continue, provided that the bona fides of the people holding notes was established, and the reasons why they still held
27 Memorandum by Sir Sydney Turner, ‘Burma Currency Board’, 5 April 1950, BoE, OV 79/2.
them.28 In the end, the total number of ‘old Burma notes’ redeemed was Rs 38,345,750 . over 420 percent above the 1948 estimates.29 Of course, one implication of this was that the BCB’s truly held reserves against the currencies on issue was rather less than appeared at the time.
Objections to the Currency Board
The relatively strong performance of the BCB in difficult times did not make it immune from criticism in Burma. Much of this, not surprisingly (and perhaps not unreasonably), had a nationalist flavour to it and which was as exercised as much about the BCB’s location and the composition of its governing board, as it was about monetary policy. Indeed, pressures to relocate the BCB to Rangoon were more or less present from the start.30 As early as 1948, the (now independent) Burmese government considered a draft Bill which would have transferred control of monetary affairs in Burma not only away from London, but to a new central bank.31
Substantive policy objections to the BCB were voiced by Tun Wai (1953 and 1962), the chronicler of Burma’s monetary affairs who, at the time of the BCB’s operations, was a graduate student in Rangoon (but of Yale University), and a keen observer and commentator of government policy. Tun Wai had a number of objections to the BCB, most centring around the ‘deflationary bias’ of currency boards noted above. In Tun Wai’s own phrase (1962, p.148), ‘a country could not expand money supply to increase output to pre-war levels, without putting aside hard-earned export proceeds to increase foreign reserves’. Not accumulating reserves condemned a country to the dilemmas posited by the famous ‘quantity theory of money’ (Tun Wai 1962, p. 148).
Tun Wai’s criticism of the BCB in this context contains a kernel of truth, but it falls down somewhat with regard to the specific circumstances of Burma during the BCB’s tenure:
Firstly, and as can be seen in Table 2 above, Burma was accumulating foreign reserves . and at a rather rapid rate. Stimulated by the surge in demand for commodities brought about by the Korean War, in the four years of the BCB’s operations Burma’s external reserves grew by 41 percent (1948.49), 10 percent (1949.50), 35 percent (1950.51) and 26 percent (1951.52). Even in its year of smallest reserves accumulation (1949.50), Burma was earning sufficient external reserves to meet the monetary needs of even the wildest estimates of its likely economic growth. Simply, the BCB did not impose a deflationary bias on Burma’s economy.
Secondly, Tun Wai ignored that component of the money supply that is not so dependent on the accumulation of anchor-currency reserves . that is, the deposit money created by the commercial banks. Of course, to some extent here the reality of Burma’s specific circumstances can be employed in Tun Wai’s defence . since the pace of creation of new commercial banks in the
29 Author’s calculations based on BCB Annual Reports, BCB (1948-1952).
30 Such discussion was noted in an untitled memorandum of 29 November 1948 by C.E. Loombe of the Bank of England, BoE OV79/2.31 For details of the creation of Burma’s first central bank, see Turnell (2009).
country in the immediate post-independence years was sluggish. Nevertheless, there is still a problem in ignoring the commercial banks in Burma in this context . to wit, at this stage most of Burma’s commercial banks were branches of foreign banks with access to the resources of their parent banks offshore. In the past such banks were not inhibited in their financing by Burma’s domestic monetary circumstances, but to circumstances relating to their own strategies and commercial decisions. In other words, should there have been profitable financing opportunities in Burma there seems no reason to believe these would have gone unfunded.
Third, and as noted by Drake (2004, p.128), there was no reason at this time to assume that the velocity of circulation was, as implicit in Tun Wai’s analysis (and assumed in the conventional rendition of the quantity theory), a constant. The spread and development of banking had led to rapid increases in currency note circulation throughout the Asia-Pacific in this period, and there is little reason to suppose . given the arrival of new indigenous banks and with more (government-owned) on the way, that this same phenomena would not take place in Burma.
Finally, there was both implicit and explicit assumptions in Tun Wai’s critique of the BCB that the reserves it employed (highly profitably) could have generated higher returns if used otherwise.32 According to Tun Wai (1962, p.148), such reserves could have been used ‘for imports to reconstruct the country after the war’, and more generally to support the ‘economic policy of establishing a socialistic economy through the nationalization of important sectors’. Tun Wai’s point here is fine in the abstract . the BCB could have been an impediment to Burma’s acquisition of imports, and it could have constrained the government’s nationalisation plans. Once again, however, the point must be made that this was not what actually took place in Burma under the BCB. The country’s foreign exchange reserves were plentiful and growing, and the government was not constrained by the BCB in either its foreign or domestic spending. Curiously, Tun Wai (elsewhere a great critic of what he saw as the waste and mismanagement associated with the spending of Burmese governments of this era), acknowledged the issue in the same (1962) edition of his book when discussing the failure of the government’s early economic plans, despite the funds at its command:
The windfall profits accruing to the government could not be spent quickly and usefully as there was no proper plan. The so-called two year development plan adopted in 1948 was merely a list of desired projects with no feasibility or technical studies. Therefore when the funds were set aside in the budgets for these projects, it was inevitable that they could not be spent (Tun Wai 1962, p.222).
The End of the BCB
By 1952 the internal political situation in Burma had stabilised to an extent that the long-awaited plans for post-war reconstruction, and for the creation of a socialist
32 The BCB recorded substantial profits in all but the final year of its operations (when losses associated with its winding-up were booked). Such profits were as a consequence of the substantial gap between the BCB’s interest earnings on its sterling securities, and its small administrative costs. Details of these profits for each of the years in which the BCB functioned are contained in Turnell (2009).
state, could at last be implemented. These plans, with their ambitions to double Burma’s GDP between 1950 and 1960, sat rather oddly with the humble BCB. Its days were numbered.
The end of the BCB came in stages across 1952. In March of that year Burma’s parliament passed an Act transferring to the Union Bank of Burma (Burma’s new central bank) all the functions of the BCB, as well as its assets and liabilities. The Act came into force from 1 July 1952, although a section of the BCB’s authorising legislation, the Currency and Coinage Act 1946, remained in force to allow the completion of one final annual report, and to allow an orderly wind-up (BCB 1952). On 31 December 1952, the BCB officially ceased to exist.33
Imposed ‘from above’ as Burma was subsumed into Britain’s expanding Asian empire in the nineteenth century, paper currency quickly found favour amongst the Burmese people. Such favour, underpinned by trust in a currency that was ‘backed’ by predominant power as much as it was by precious metals, was also a consequence of the manifest advantages of a monetary device well-suited to the production and trade of Burma’s great staples. In the Second World War paper money in Burma would be sorely tested. Employed, in the long and unfortunate tradition in which paper currencies have been fashioned according to the needs of war, the occupation currencies applied by Japan were printed promiscuously. Inflation and a collapse of trust in paper, which for a while had value only as a raw material for the making of hats, were the inevitable results. The returning British colonial regime were faced with a number of difficult choices in restoring Burma’s paper currencies. These choices imposed great cost, but in the end the currency board they created to restore trust proved remarkably successful. In 2009, and after nearly fifty years of extreme economic policy-making ineptitude under military rule, Burma’s currency is worth less than five per cent of what it was under the currency board. And yet, in its own monetary history resides hope.
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33 The replacement of the BCB was viewed as desirable by most of Burma’s politicians, as indicated throughout these pages. But its passing was reportedly noted with regret by one unexpected admirer. Kyaw Nyein, one of the Burma’s leading socialists figures, a one-time leadership contender with Aung San, and in 1952 the Secretary-General of the ruling party, the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), confided to the Bank of England ‘his full realisation of the dangers of tampering with the currency and said that for that reason he himself had been a little dubious about the wisdom of transferring the note issuing powers from the Currency Board to the Union Bank’. Diary note of visit of U Kyaw Nyein to the Bank of England, 6 June 1952, BoE, OV 79/2.
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