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Dissident Banknote — Burma

by Jonah Goodman

In 1989, speaking out against the Burmese government could cost you your life. The previous year, Burma’s generals had repealed the country’s constitution, imposed martial law, and violently suppressed pro-democracy protests. Months later, however, rumours began to spread about the new, one-Kyat banknote. At first its portrait of Aung San, the father of modern Burma, seemed perfectly normal. Holding the banknote up to the light, however, revealed a watermark that subtly altered the face, making the nose narrower, jaw rounder and eyes softer, turning the picture of Aung San into a picture of his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the Burmese democratic movement. Soon citizens began finding other hidden messages from the anonymous designer. Four concentric rings around an eight-petalled flower form four sets of eight, a reference to the ‘8888’ pro-democracy demonstrations named after the date they began, August 8th, 1988. Even the medium was slyly appropriate. The 8888 protests were triggered by bizarre currency reforms that rendered three-quarters of Burmese banknotes worthless overnight. Soon, this one-Kyat note was also worthless, withdrawn from circulation when the subterfuge was detected. Its designer—and his fate—remain unknown.

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