Source of Fund and Donors of Ma Ba Tha
By Aman Ullah
Myanmar is a deeply religious society, and all segments of society liberally donate to monks and monasteries. In 2014, Myanmar ranked first in the “Global Giving Index,” a ranking of charitable behavior among countries around the world, despite being one of the poorest and least developed countries in Asia. Much of this charitable giving is directed towards the monkhood in the forms of cash, gifts deemed useful to monks or their monasteries, and even labor through donated volunteer time. An analysis of available Ma Ba Tha donation receipts shows donations ranging from small individual contributions of a few hundred kyats to upwards of US$10,000 (12.7 million kyat).
Donations are unregulated and subject to virtually no accountability. The Ma Ba Tha appears to have low operating costs. Much significant expenditure is donated, such as much of the technical expertise that has allowed the Ma Ba Tha to reach its current level of efficiency.
Nearly all of the Ma Ba Tha’s team of lawyers, accountants, and media experts are reported to provide their services for free. An illustrative case is the lead lawyer U Ye Khaung Nyunt and his daughter who claim they came out of retirement at the urging of senior Ma Ba Tha monks. In an interview, Nyunt claims to be helping purely for “the merit” (i.e. the concept of good deeds that accumulate into the next life in the path towards spiritual enlightenment). Interviews with local journalists suggested the same regarding other Ma Ba Tha advisors who worked full-time jobs and assisted the Ma Ba Tha after hours. Other significant donations are similarly intangible. For example, the Ma Ba Tha’s grand October 2015 celebration rally at Thuwanna Stadium was a venue secured by a special Presidential exemption. For other major events, such as the Race and Religion Law celebration in Pathein, even the 20,000 required chairs were donated, in that case by the Irrawaddy General Administration Department.
Mode of Donations
The donations of Ma Ba Tha appear to be primarily made in the form of cash, for which some monasteries issue receipts. However, increasing shares of donations also appear to route through the formal banking system, with some monks even posting their bank account details online to facilitate donations. The majority of available donations to the Ma Ba Tha, though, appear to be relatively small and from laypeople of various socioeconomic statuses, as seen on donation receipts and bank transfer slips.
Donors and Fundraising System
The Ma Ba Tha does not advertise its big-money donors, and some no doubt prefer anonymity. However, in some cases, donors have chosen to publicize their contributions. One such donation that received significant press was alleged to have consisted of 700 million kyat, or US$ 550,000, donated to the Ma Ba Tha by a Buddhist group backed by a gold mining firm, Myanmar National Prosperity Public Company (MNPPC). However, according to contacts who reached out to Ma Ba Tha after the news release, the Ma Ba Tha claimed that the figure had been misreported and was closer to US$ 55,000.
The latter figure appears more realistic. In an interview with BBC Burmese around the time of the donation, MNPPC Chairman Soe Tun Shein stated that he had donated 1 viss (about 3.6 pounds) of gold. At market rates, it would be worth approximately US$60,000 (76 million kyat). This may not be Shein’s only donation; Wirathu claimed in September 2015 that he had previously made another donation of “1 billion kyat” (US$770,000) to flood relief efforts, although there is no corroborating evidence. It is worth noting that the MNPPC is reportedly currently in dispute with the government concerning its gold concessions, resulting from the company owing money to the ministry of Mines and having incurred local opposition to their operations.
Accurate details on the Ma Ba Tha’s fundraising efforts are difficult to determine. For example, one image from August 2015 circulated on pro-Ma Ba Tha social media accounts shows Central Committee members Ashin Thadhamma and Ashin Wimala Buddhi sitting alongside a significant amount of cash as seen in the image on the right. No other details on time, location, or donor are available, but the amount appears to be between US$5,000-10,000. Additionally, it is widely believed that some monks can raise very significant sums through their own channels. For example, a flood relief committee created by Sitagu Sayadaw raised million kyats ($252,000) in just four days, according to local media. Furthermore, funding can come from a wide range of sources.
One instance involves the flood relief coordination committee managed by Ashin Sopaka on behalf of the Central Committee. According to what appears to be a page from the committee’s accounting book posted on a social media account, donations came from Ma Ba Tha Central, various local chapters, Mon State USDP party, and local companies, including a bookstore and two bus companies.
While the allegation is that the Ma Ba Tha receives significant funding from the military, political, and business elites of Myanmar, there is very little information available in the open-source to validate this claim. However, available imagery indicates that several local political elites were courting the Ma Ba Tha’s support in the run-up to the elections. A notable donor was USDP-candidate Lin Zaw Tun, pictured below, who donated $31,000 to the Ma Ba Tha in August 2015.
(To be continued…)