Religion Minister Seeks Banks’ Help to Track Nationalist Funds

By Tin Htet Paing & Htun Htun 25 May 2017

RANGOON — Religious affairs minister U Aung Ko is grappling with the Central Bank of Myanmar for cooperation in order to trace the funds used for the activities of hardline nationalists that include a protest against him last week.

About 300 protesters, including nationalists and Buddhist monks, along with roughly 2,700 supporters from across the country, gathered in Naypyidaw on May 20 to accuse U Aung Ko of neglecting Buddhism and favoring Islam.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture cited on May 22 social media posts alleging that protesters were paid sums ranging from 7,000 kyats (US$5) to 30,000 kyats ($22) to participate, and that 800 million kyats ($584,000) went toward organizing the demonstration.

On Wednesday, U Aung Ko said his ministry first asked the Central Bank for the account information of every religious and social organization in Burma last July after the nationalist group Ma Ba Tha, also known as the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, said its members would stage nationwide demonstrations if the government failed to take action against Rangoon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein for labeling the group as “unnecessary” for Burma.

The State Buddhist Sangha authority or the Sangha Maha Nayaka, known as Ma Ha Na, ordered Ma Ba Tha on Tuesday to cease all its activities.

The Central Bank provided the ministry with one whole figure of 300 million kyats, said the minister, but ignored his second request. The Central Bank is the main authority for local private banks, and the government has to go through it to retrieve the information.

“Money is the only motivation for people—especially at a grassroots level—to participate in such a demonstration,” he said. “If thousands of people come and stage a protest in Naypyidaw, hundreds of millions of kyats would have to be spent. Where did the money come from?”

U Aung Ko criticized the bank and other local private banks for being “uncooperative” in the investigation process, adding that he told the President’s Office the Central Bank had not responded to the ministry’s second request.

The minister could not confirm rumors that funds of about 5 billion kyats were designated for the activities of nationalist groups, he said, because of the banks’ unwillingness to help.

The Central Bank’s financial institutions supervision department was not available for comment on Thursday.

According to the 2016 Financial Institutions Law, a bank has a duty to maintain secrecy about the information relating to its customers’ accounts unless the disclosure of the information is ordered by a court and required for criminal proceedings.

U Aung Ko accused United Amara Bank, run by a son of the late U Aung Thaung, a controversial businessman and politician known for his ties with former dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe, of dealing in the funds of nationalist groups.

His allegation prompted the bank to deny “any involvement with Ma Ba Tha” in a public statement on Wednesday night.

“We always provide information and data requested by the Central Bank regarding financial cases without any delay,” the statement read.

The ministry announced on Thursday that it had acted “hastily” by using the bank as an example in explaining its investigation to the media and has since apologized to the bank’s management.

U Aung Ko claimed “a group of people or an organization” wanting to reverse the transition toward democracy is supporting nationalist groups, though he was not able to confirm the theory.

The payment of protesters would violate Section 10 of the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law, which prohibits any act of paying, bribing of threatening people to participate in demonstrations. Violators face up to one month in prison.

U Sanda Siri, a member of Mandalay-based Nationalist Buddhist Monks Association, led hundreds of protesters last Saturday. The monk said it cost 2.8 million kyats to transport protesters from Mandalay and Pyin Oo Lwin to Naypyidaw, adding that the funds came from donors and nationalists.

“I don’t know about protesters from other places,” he said. “But in the place where I took responsibility, protesters were paid nothing.”

Htet Naing Zaw contributed to this report from Naypyidaw.