Myanmar’s economic turmoil is driving thousands to seek work abroad

Despite the threat of arrest for breaking curfew, residents of Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon gather each day in long lines for passport applications at the city’s immigration office in the hope of finding work abroad.

The applicants say the country’s junta has left them no other choice as the economy has tanked under its rule. In the 10 months since the military seized power from the country’s democratically elected National League for Democracy government, Myanmar has descended into chaos, with regular protests in the streets, a nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement, and violent conflict between junta soldiers and prodemocracy People’s Defense Force (PDF) militias and ethnic armies in its remote border regions.

The kyat has fallen sharply against the U.S. dollar and foreign investment has fled amid security risks, while Western nations have leveled sanctions against the military regime for its violent repression of peaceful demonstrations and those critical of its rule.

Wage earners have found it harder than ever to make a living, one man from Yangon named Zeyar told RFA’s Myanmar Service as he waited in a queue with about 1,000 others applying for passports.

Zeyar said his wages were cut in half and then laid off after foreign investors pulled out of Myanmar and the coronavirus pandemic spread throughout the country and devastated the global supply chain. He cannot make ends meet and is forced to seek a job outside of the country.

Hundreds now arrive at the immigration office in Yangon’s Yankin township each day by 3:00 a.m., despite a junta-ordered curfew from 10:00 p.m. until 4:00 a.m., to obtain the paperwork they need to secure a passport, Zeyar said.

“We have been queuing since 4:00 a.m.,” he said of the group of applicants he had come with. “This is the second time we have come here. The other day, we were in the queue, but I didn’t get it that day. We need to go abroad to find work as all employment opportunities have run dry here.”

A graphics designer by trade, Zeyar said that jobs in Myanmar are evaporating as more foreign companies leave the country.

Pyae Phyo, who hopes to leave the country soon, told RFA it had been easy to get a passport before the Feb. 1 coup. He said he was forced to return to the office three times because the line was too long. He has yet to get his passport application.

“I’ve discovered that about 45 out of 50 people who are now queuing for passports are agents or brokers. Passports cost just over 30,000 kyats (U.S. $17). If you work with a broker, it’d cost about 75,000 kyats (U.S. $42). We cannot afford that much during these hard times,” he said.

“It takes a long time now to get a passport. It’s not easy to commute nowadays and moreover it disrupts my work. And then, with all the checkpoints and frequent bombings [by local resistance groups], travelling from place to place becomes more difficult.”

Economic shrinkage

Junta leader Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing acknowledged at a meeting of the military leadership on Dec. 3 that the country’s economy had shrank compared to last year.

In July, the World Bank forecast an 18% annual decline for Myanmar’s economy, citing the worsening political crisis following the coup and the then-rapid rise of a third wave of COVID-19 infections in the country.

According to Myanmar’s 2014 census, more than 32 million out of the country’s 51 million population are of employment age. Last year, the International Labour Organization said that the impact of the pandemic alone could leave up to 7.3 million people unemployed.

However, after the military coup, most wage earners who worked in the construction, mining and tourism sectors lost their jobs, and when factories shut down, hundreds of thousands of workers in the general labor sector became unemployed, according to the Myanmar National Trade Union.

From his position in line, Pyae Phyo told RFA that the junta’s crackdown on all opposition is what is driving him to leave the country for work.

“I don't think we could find work locally. They are now looking at all the young people as PDF militia fighters. They just want to capture and kill everyone. So, I think it would be better to go and work abroad,” he said.

“Being a slave overseas would be better than living here under a military dictatorship.”

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.