Myanmar's First Prepaid Card -- and Awful Credit History

Myanmar's economy has always run on cash -- thick bricks of it, used by residents to pay for everything from household sundries to homes and cars. That's slowly changing as global banks and financial services giants trickle into the country -- but even in Yangon, Myanmar's commercial capital, ATMs remain scarce and few businesses accept foreign credit cards. For those who bank with local Myanmar institutions, plastic is still a distant dream.

All of which makes the launch Tuesday of the country's first-ever bank card a minor but significant victory. Offered jointly by Myanmar's Cooperative Bank (CB Bank) and MasterCard, the reloadable prepaid card is intended only for accountholders traveling abroad. For now, that's a small group: Just one in five Myanmar residents vacationed outside the country during the past year. Meanwhile, less than 10 percent of all residents have a bank account, in large part due to public distrust of the banking system.

Decades of mismanagement and impulsive decision-making by the former military regime eroded just about all of the country's institutions, and tanked the national economy more than once. The most outrageous example of this occurred in 1987, when General Ne Win famously demonetized all banknotes of 25, 35 and 75 kyats, without warning or compensation, on the advice of an astrologer who reportedly told him that nine was his lucky number. He replaced the old notes with new ones divisible by nine, wiping out the savings of countless citizens and rendering 75 percent of the country's currency worthless.

Myanmar's banking system has come a long way since Ne Win imposed his brand of socialism on the country, but banks still struggle with negative public perception. As recently as 2011, rumors that CB Bank's owner was feuding with a military crony compelled scores of accountholders to quietly withdraw their money -- nearly throwing the company into bankruptcy in the process. Matters have steadily improved under President Thein Sein, whose economic reforms have brought some stability to Myanmar's financial system and encouraged global financial institutions to enter the market.

By the end of 2013, around 500 business (mostly hotels and restaurants) are expected to accept foreign credits cards. Pretty soon, Myanmar's banking few may be able to choose plastic over paper, too.

Jeremy Woodhouse


Peru's Ex-President Is Tweeting from Prison

The Letter from Birmingham Jail it is not. Since September, former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, who is serving out a 25-year sentence for human rights abuses in the 1990s, has been engaged in a particularly rare form of opposition politics, tweeting out political commentary to his now-10,000 followers from behind bars.

Last month, the Twitter account -- along with an accompanying Facebook page -- launched with an inaugural YouTube message and photo montage of Fujimori, along with a written message to his queridos amigos announcing that he would be sharing his thoughts and memoirs on social media, and that "some young people and close collaborators" would be administering the accounts: 

Since then, Fujimori appears to have discarded the memoir idea in favor of political rants and campaign slogans -- made all the more bizarre by the fact he's sitting in a prison cell. "Today more than ever!" Fujimori recently exclaimed in response to a tweet by his daughter, Keiko, asserting that her political party was united in the face of efforts to divide it.

Fujimori regularly heaps criticism on the current Peruvian government under President Ollanta Humala -- all of which is pretty rich for a man found guilty of creating a death squad that murdered 25 of his own people during a brutal campaign to wipe out the Maoist guerrilla group Shining Path. Earlier this month, for instance, Fujimori humbly suggested that Peruvian leaders do more to create an "atmosphere of social peace for welfare and growth."

"Strikes, roadblocks, and protests against for absurd measures," he observed at another point. "Is the Ollanta-Nadine government deaf? Or just incapable of governing?" 

The brutality that eventually landed Fujimori in prison was also, arguably, at the root of his popularity as president. He was elected in 1990 as Peru was being ravaged by both the ruthless Shining Path insurgency and an annual inflation rate of almost 7,600 percent. Fujimori claimed sweeping emergency powers for himself and launched an aggressive counterterrorism campaign, culminating in the establishment of the Colina Group death squad, which was responsible for forced disappearances and massacres in 1991 and 1992. On Twitter, Fujimori is quick to remind his followers that he rescued Peru from the "1990 apocalypse" and presided over a decade of "true reforms."

Needless to say, Peruvian authorities aren't amused by Fujimori's budding social media presence -- so they haven't yet gone so far as to shut it down. Peruvian Congressman Yehude Simon, who was imprisoned under Fujimori's rule, has called the government "weak" for allowing the jailed former president to use Twitter (Fujimori's lawyer, William Paco Castillo, has told Peru's El Comercio that his client uses a phone inside the prison to dictate tweets to his employees). Some have speculated that the account is part of a public relations campaign by Fujimori, who earlier this year was denied a pardon on the grounds that he was not terminally ill, to generate support for a house arrest bid before Peru's Supreme Court. And on Friday, Justice Minister Daniel Figallo announced, bizarrely, that the government would "regulate" Fujimori's Facebook and Twitter messages, pledging that any profits from Fujimori's resulting memoir would go toward civil reparations for victims of the former leader's reign of terror in the 1990s. That prompted Fujimori to accuse the government of trying to "expropriate" his memoirs -- just like Peru's former dictator Juan Velasco Alvarado expropriated private property and enterprise in the late 1960s.

For, now, though, the main beneficiary of the former president's tweets appears to be Fujimori himself. He recently thanked his Twitter followers for making his account "trend" -- adding that they are his "greatest therapy."