YANGON – Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda earned 67 billion kyats plus USD15.2 million (20.5 billion kyats) in tourist receipts in fiscal 2016-17, while the regional government’s interest income on pagoda-related deposits at state-owned Myanmar Economic Bank totaled 476.4 million kyats in the period, regional cabinet member U Naing Ngan Lin told the Yangon Parliament on Wednesday.
The comments were made during a regular session of the regional Parliament in reply to questioning by National League for Democracy lawmaker U Kyaw Zeya about the earnings of well-known Yangon pagodas such as Shwedagon, Sule, Kabaraye, Botahtaung and Swedaw. All of the sites are popular destinations for both foreign tourists and local residents. U Kyaw Zeya noted that no accounting of the pagodas’ income had ever been made public or reported to Parliament. The money came from various sources, including donations from devotees, income from tendering contracts for related businesses such as pagoda parking lots, and even gold found during panning around the pagoda compounds.
The lawmaker asked a range of questions, including whether the pagodas’ trustee boards had deposited the money in bank accounts in line with budget principles; the total amounts deposited in each bank; and details of the selection process for trustee board members, pointing out that appointees should be persons of good character who dutifully maintained the pagodas. Yangon Region Social Welfare Minister U Naing Ngan Lin explained that candidates for the pagoda trustee boards were jointly screened by religious affairs and divisional government officials, before the selection board examined their qualifications. All appointees must be approved by the Sangha, the nation’s highest religious authority, the minister said.
In fiscal 2016-17, Sule Pagoda earned 16 million kyats, Kabar Aye Pagoda earned 89 million kyats, Botahtaung Pagoda earned 14.5 million kyats and USD15.2 million, and Swedaw Pagoda earned 15.8 million kyats, the minister said. The pagodas’ trustee boards follow the same financial calendar and accounting procedures as ministries, he said, adding that their expenditure reports are reviewed annually by the general auditor’s office. He promised to submit the audit reports to Parliament in future years.
Outspoken parliamentarian Daw Kyi Pyar of Kyauktada constituency told The Irrawaddy that ordinary residents have no idea about famous pagodas’ income, as it is not publicly disclosed. She said even she was shocked at the amount when the regional government minister officially answered questions in Parliament.
“It’s a huge, unbelievable amount of money,” she said.
She believed the funds should be distributed to poor monasteries that teach Buddhist scripture to monks and nuns across the state, and to help pay for maintenance of monastery yards and structures. Daw Kyi Pyar said that even in Yangon and Bago regions it was easy to see that many monasteries are unable to afford painting and fencing. She said it was unclear whether the Religious Affairs Ministry has specific rules and conditions that restrict a pagoda to spending money on its own needs.
“I don’t think they could spend all the money in Shwedagon pagoda alone, and a pile of money is sleeping in the bank,” she said.
Despite being listed as one of the world’s poorest countries and among the most vulnerable to natural disasters, Myanmar topped the World Giving Index 2016, a survey of donation activities conducted by the Charities Aid Foundation. The ranking is based on the proportion of the population that regularly donates to strangers and charity groups, not the amount of money given.