Myanmar Junta Targets Mobile Banking in Bid to Cut Off Opposition Funding

New restrictions are announced after Myanmar’s shadow government launches a lottery campaign.
Myanmar Junta Targets Mobile Banking in Bid to Cut Off Opposition Funding Kanbawza Bank Ltd’s KBZPay app.

Myanmar’s military regime is working to block the flow of funding to the country’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG) and other anti-junta organizations by shutting down mobile banking accounts and forcing private lenders to submit daily reports on account activity, according to sources.

Public confidence in the government and banking sector was shattered on Feb. 1, when Myanmar’s military seized control of the country in a coup d’état and began a campaign of violent repression that has led to at least 1,007 civilian deaths and 5,747 arrests.

Lines now form daily for A.T.M. withdrawals, which have been capped at around U.S. $120 to help prevent a run on the banks, and fewer than 100 A.T.M.s carry cash on any given day, according to a recent report by the New York Times.

Amid the political chaos, account holders have increasingly turned to mobile banking services to bypass the country’s cash shortage, including the NUG the various People’s Defense Force (PDF) militias formed to protect the public from the military, and the anti-junta Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM).

The shift has drawn greater scrutiny and restrictions from the junta.

On Aug. 17, the junta’s Central Bank vice-chairman Win Thaw announced on the official MRTV that financial services, and particularly mobile payment and mobile banking services such as Wave Money’s WavePay and Kanbawza Bank Ltd.’s KBZPay, will be “closely monitored” by the government. 

He said that the NUG and parliament’s Pyidaungsu Hluttaw Committee of Representatives (CRPH) are “illegal organizations” and specifically warned of “legal action” against banks whose mobile services are used to facilitate a NUG-led CDM campaign known as the Aung Lan Lwint Chi Spring Lottery organized to raise money for the shadow government.

“The CRPH and NUG are actually illegal organizations, and the Central Bank needs to report this to the Ministry of Planning and Finance, as illegal cash transactions have to be stopped,” he said. “If financial institutions fail to report remittances, legal action will be taken against them under the Financial Institutions Act.”

The vice-chairman also said that authorities are monitoring transactions related to the NUG’s lottery sale, which began on Aug. 15 and offers a payout of up to 1.5 million kyats (U.S. $910) on monthly drawings for winning tickets that can be purchased through mobile banking platforms. He warned that individuals purchasing tickets could be charged under anti-terrorism and anti-money laundering laws.

Win Thaw’s comments came days after the Aug. 13 leak of a Central Bank letter instructing all banks and financial service providers to restrict almost all transactions related to the lottery, under orders from the Ministry of Planning and Revenue.

NUG Finance and Investment Minister Tin Tun Naing told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the lottery had been planned with the public’s safety in mind and said the junta’s threats are empty.

“They said they are going to monitor all these accounts, but in reality, there are hundreds of thousands of monetary transfers each day,” he said.

“How are they going to find out which are meant for our lottery, and which are not? I don’t think they can do anything to actually trouble the people other than issuing threats.”

Tin Tun Naing also said that the junta is unlikely to shut down mobile banking entirely because it would impact its own administration system and suggested that a more secure payment system is “in the pipeline.”

A young woman named Htet Myat Thaw told RFA that despite the threats posed by the junta, she would not hesitate to support the CDM.

“I'm one of those people who is waiting for the Spring Revolution lottery—it’s not only me, but people all over the country are waiting,” she said.

“We are concerned about our security but we also need to support our CDM movement and so we’ve got to participate in this lottery, setting aside our fears. The CDM is a major part of the fight against junta rule.”

People wait for a branch of the AYA Bank to open in Yangon, April 12, 2021. AFP
People wait for a branch of the AYA Bank to open in Yangon, April 12, 2021. AFP
Other accounts targeted

Other sources told RFA that bank accounts used to donate to CDM staff, assist political prisoners, and provide aid to refugees of fighting between the military and the PDF in Myanmar’s remote border regions were shut down between Aug. 9 and 13.

Ei Pyae Sone, a resident of Mandalay, said that she and a friend had both had their KBZPay accounts closed, adding that when she contacted Kanbawza Bank to inquire why, employees told her it had been done on the order of the authorities.

“I was told to come to the bank with my ID card and to sort it out, but I didn’t go,” she said.

“There was a little over 3.8 million kyats (U.S. $2,310) in my account. A friend of mine also had her account blocked [on Tuesday]. We called the bank and they said it was done on orders from the authorities. We asked who the authorities were, and they couldn’t give a specific answer. Reporting our details to the junta and blocking the accounts like this is totally unacceptable.”

Ei Pyae Sone warned that if Kanbawza and other banks operate on the orders of the junta, the people will boycott them.

A senior manager at a well-known private bank, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal, recently told RFA that junta scrutiny of the banking sector began as early as one week after the coup, with the military regime ordering all private lenders to “send details of deposits and withdrawals to the Central Bank” every day at 4:00 p.m.

“Bank employees, especially top officials, followed the instructions mainly out of fear,” the manager said.

“Interfering in the banking system is not good, but the banks have no choice but to follow orders. It’s the norm in our country to do what one is told because everyone is afraid.”

He warned that the people “will surely lose confidence” if banks refuse to let them withdraw their money and restrictions on online payments continue.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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