Migrant workers in Myanmar on edge as coup disrupts remittance flow


The Feb. 01 coup has cut a lifeline for millions of migrant workers’ families in Myanmar as bank and remittance services have been heavily disrupted.

Business in the country has been interrupted since the military ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, imposing internet curbs and prompting mass street protests as well as workers’ strikes across Myanmar.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been demonstrating across Myanmar since the coup, with at least 31 people killed.

Many businesses have been closing to show support for the anti-coup movement or allowing their employees to attend protests during work hours.

This resulted in irregular bank services, with some branches closed, others reducing operations and limiting withdrawals.

The disruptions have led to a number of banks and financial firms abroad temporarily suspending their money transfer services to Myanmar or advising clients to put the transfer plan on hold, citing potential delays.

A check with a branch of Thailand’s Kasikornbank in Bangkok – as well as the Western Union and International Money Transfer outlets in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur – confirmed this. Another Thai bank, Siam Commercial Bank, said its transfer service is still up and running.

Western Union, the world’s largest money transfer firm, has said it “cannot provide a definitive timeframe” on when its transfer service to Myanmar might resume, according to a post on its website on Feb. 19.

“I’m concerned about how (my family) will get through each day,” Own Mar Shwe, 41, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Samut Sakhon, a Thai seafood hub south of the capital Bangkok.

She usually sends 6,000 baht (US$200) a month from working at a shrimp market, paying a broker who uses Wave Money – a digital payment service – to transfer the money to convenience stores in Myanmar where her relatives pick up the payments.

“I don’t know what to do,” said the mother-of-three, expressing worries for her 76-year-old mother who is sick and relies on her income to buy medicine.

More than four million Myanmar migrants – from a population of about 54 million – work overseas in industries ranging from manufacturing, agriculture to domestic work, United Nations data shows. Their top two destinations are Thailand and Malaysia.

Many of them are the breadwinners for their families, sending back remittances that amounted to US$2.4 billion in 2019, or more than 3% of the country’s gross domestic product, World Bank figures show.

Even before the current political turmoil, COVID-19 has had an “acute effect” on the livelihoods of Myanmar’s migrants and their families, with millions suffering job losses and reduced income, according to a UN report last year.

For Ko Nai Ling, who arrived in Malaysia in 2013 from his village in Myanmar to find a better paying job to support his two families from separate marriages, all he hopes is that he can send money again soon.

He has barely been able to communicate with his family since the coup as access to Facebook – used by half of Myanmar’s population – remains restricted.

“I am very worried because I am the only person providing for them,” said Ko Nai Ling, 33, who used to send home up to 1,200 ringgit (US$300) a month from working at a car wash.

“If I can’t send money, I don’t know how they will survive.” (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)