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Soaring palm oil prices prompt long lines in Myanmar

The price of edible palm oil in Myanmar has soared in recent months to more than five times what it was prior to the February 2021 military coup, leading to long lines around the country.

A staple commodity in Myanmar, where it is used to cook, the cost of palm oil is a barometer for inflation and the health of the wider economy, which has become progressively worse since the takeover amid fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, international sanctions and junta mismanagement.

In 2020, before the coup, the price of a viss (3.6 pounds) of palm oil was just over 1,800 kyats (US$0.85), but in recent months has hovered north of 10,000 kyats (US$4.75), forcing consumers to curb their purchasing. 

Responding to the increase, the junta recently ordered major palm oil wholesalers to sell their product at around 4,200 kyats (US$2) per viss per household.

The central bank’s official exchange rate for the kyat is 2,100 kyats per U.S. dollar, which has been in force since April last year, but on the external market, one U.S. dollar trades for between 3,300 and 3,500 kyats, sources tell RFA Burmese.

May Thu, from Yangon’s Insein township, told RFA she can no longer buy the amount of palm oil she needs from retail stores and now must join thousands of others standing in long lines around the country to buy it at wholesale rates.

“Housewives have to go and stand in line whether they are busy or not because they have no oil to cook with,” she said. “That’s why they have no choice but to wait in line to buy it.”

May Thu said wholesalers only sell the oil on certain days and that she has to “rush to get a token and wait in line whenever they announce the sale.”

‘Shoving one another under the burning sun’

A resident of Mandalay who, like others RFA interviewed for this report, declined to be named citing security concerns, said that there are days when she has to return home empty-handed after standing in line for hours to buy oil.

“We have to wait in line, shoving one another under the burning sun … about every other day,” she said. “It’s like that all over Mandalay. Some people don’t get to buy the oil. About 300 people line up for only 150 bottles worth.”

A woman waits in line in suburban Yangon, Myanmar, with bottles to fill with palm oil, Sept. 15, 2023. Credit: RFA

A housewife in Yangon told RFA that there are always people who suffer from overheating and faint while standing in line in the extremely hot weather.

“We want to be able to buy it at 4800 kyats per viss – the same price the junta sells at – from retail shops in our neighborhood,” she said. 

“As only the lower class uses palm oil, that’s who lines up for it,” she said. “There are often arguments with people swearing at one another. It’s just another way our lives have been uprooted these past two and a half years [since the coup].”

‘Get arrested or don’t sell’

Wholesalers said the cost increase and the junta’s order to sell at reduced prices has put them in a bind.

“The situation is such that we either sell at a higher price and get arrested or we don’t sell at all,” said one businessman. “That’s why many oil merchants have stopped selling, leading to a shortage of palm oil. The market economy mechanism is broken.”

Long palm oil lines, such as this one in suburban Yangon, are now common in Myanmar. One woman told RFA that people sometimes overheated and fainted while waiting. Credit: RFA

Another businessman suggested that the junta had ordered wholesalers to sell for reduced prices to generate lines as part of a “show” for the global community.

“Are they trying to make a scene that appears as if they are providing enough to the people when international visitors come?” he wondered. “No other country has this type of situation – only in Myanmar do people have to wait in line to buy palm oil.”

In 2022, Myanmar imported a monthly average of around 40,000 tons of palm oil, with the maximum in July at 58,600 tons and the minimum in May at 25,000 tons.

Domestic oil production in Myanmar is insufficient, and two-thirds of palm oil consumed in the country is imported from abroad. Amid the drop in value of the kyat since the military takeover, Myanmar has had to purchase foreign imports at higher prices and is experiencing various shortages.

Translated by Myo Min Aung. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.