More than 100 Myanmar traders and residents in the border town of Muse in northern Shan state protested on Friday against Chinese authorities’ closure of their bank accounts, despite days of negotiations between Myanmar and Chinese officials and diplomats to unfreeze their assets.
Three Chinese banks with local branches in Myanmar’s border area froze hundreds of accounts in mid-June without warning over possible links to illegal activities, including smuggling, gambling, and drug dealing.
They have blocked deposits worth an estimated 40 billion kyats (U.S. $28.8 million), according to an Eleven Myanmar media group report, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the Myanmar traders to do business.
Representatives from the Myanmar Pulses, Beans & Sesame Seeds Merchants Association led a protest march from a monastery in Muse to the border crossing, demanding the immediate reopening of the accounts.
Members of the association, whose accounts had been blocked, met with Myanmar lawmakers and representatives from nongovernmental organizations in Muse on June 17 to discuss the situation.
Local lawmakers and political party representatives joined in the march.
“Why did they accept Myanmar citizens’ applications to open accounts?” asked Naw Baut, chairman of the Muse branch of the ruling National League for Democracy party, referring to the three Chinese banks that shut down accounts.
“They can tell us that we are not allowed to open bank accounts because we are Myanmar citizens, but now they let Myanmar citizens open accounts, and then they close them,” he said. “It’s not fair. That’s why I’ve joined the protest—to show that the NLD stands by our people.”
Chinese authorities closed the border crossing while the protest was in progress.
‘Working on our bank accounts’
Hla Maung, chairman of the Myanmar Pulses, Beans & Sesame Seeds Merchants Association, said representatives from his organization had talked with bank officials for almost the entire night about unfreezing the accounts of its members.
“They have been working on our bank accounts,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “They promised they will resolve this bank account problem as soon as possible and asked that we not do anything that could harm relations between the two countries.”
A woman named Phyu, who is the vice chairperson of Myanmar Pulses, Beans & Sesame Seeds Merchants Association, said protesters do not want to damage ties between Myanmar and China, but they want the issue to be resolved.
“Merchants and people pay taxes to the country,” she said. “We don’t want anything bad to happen to the countries’ relationship, but we are in trouble.”
“We want the two governments, media, and parliaments to understand our situation,” she said. “There might be some who are doing illegal business, but most of us are running legal businesses.”
About 10 days ago, the Shweli branches of the Agricultural Bank of China, the China Construction Bank, and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China began freezing the accounts of clients suspected of laundering money from illegal activities.
Chinese officials said nearly 336 accounts had been frozen, including those of more than 100 Myanmar businesspeople who operate in the 105-mile Muse border trade zone in northern Shan state across the Shweli River from southwestern China’s Yunnan province.
Local residents, however, contend that the banks had frozen about 1,000 accounts.
Yang Shouzheng, China’s ambassador to Myanmar, met with police from Myanmar’s Ministry of Interior in the capital Naypyidaw on Thursday to discuss the issue, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.
Though an investigation of the frozen bank accounts is ongoing, officials are said to be working to reopen those not associated with criminal activities.
Reported by Kan Thar and Thiri Min Zin for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.