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Myanmar activists raising millions via Singapore to fight junta

Medical students, doctors and engineers march in Yangon, Myanmar to protest against the military coup, on Feb 26, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

BANGKOK - Myanmar nationals in Singapore are playing a key role raising funds to oppose their country's military junta, having collected millions of dollars just over the past few months.

The money is being channelled towards humanitarian aid as well as Myanmar's shadow National Unity Government (NUG) and armed groups resisting the military coup last year.

A 12-day global online campaign to raise funds for weapons to fight the Myanmar junta ended on April 10 after netting US$2.2 million (S$3 million). According to its organisers, more than half of that amount was raised through Singapore, dwarfing contributions from the United States, South Korea, Japan and Thailand.

"No Fly Zone - We will create it ourselves," declared exiled Myanmar author and anti-regime activist Ei Pencilo on Facebook just before she launched the campaign. It was in reference to unsuccessful appeals by some people in Myanmar for the international community to enforce a no-fly zone in their country, to stop the junta from staging air strikes against civilians. She also uploaded a poster of an anonymous soldier aiming a portable missile at a distant helicopter.

While The Straits Times could not verify the US$2.2 million figure nor breakdown of contributions from each country, several Singapore-based Myanmar activists contacted said they were not surprised by the numbers.

For decades, Singapore was regarded as a financial hub of choice by the Myanmar elite as well as global corporations investing in that country. Since the Myanmar military coup in Myanmar on Feb 1 last year, Singapore has also emerged as a key fund-raising hub for those in Myanmar trying to restore democracy in their country.

Sources familiar with the matter said that most of the funds are usually raised from the 200,000-strong Myanmar community in Singapore and its wider overseas network, rather than Singaporeans themselves.

More than 520,000 people have been displaced across Myanmar by the growing crisis in the country, according to the United Nations. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human rights group, said that at least 1,779 people have been killed by the junta and more than 10,000 people detained since the coup.

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Myanmar's military regime, which annulled the 2020 General Election and jailed its civilian leaders, is battling numerous "people's defence forces (PDFs)", some of which have teamed up with established ethnic armed groups that maintain de facto control in border areas. In an effort to quell opposition, the junta has reportedly torched homes and food stocks, as well as staged air raids forcing entire communities to flee.

Amid the lack of significant progress towards a political resolution, Asean has shut Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing out of its summits by insisting that the country send a "non-political representative".

Singapore has topped the charts in many Myanmar-linked online fund-raising campaigns. One scheme called People's Revolution Supply Family enables "members" to make recurring donations to PDF fighters.

According to its organisers, it amassed 4,586 members between December last year and January, out of which 1,599 were from Singapore. "Bravo Singapore!!! (sic)" its organisers wrote on Facebook.

When asked about its guidelines on money being raised for arms, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) referred ST to a statement it released last year.

"Financial institutions in Singapore have been put on heightened alert in relation to risks emanating from the situation in Myanmar," said its spokesman. "MAS expects financial institutions to properly manage money laundering risks, and not facilitate fund flows that are related to illicit activities. MAS has reminded financial institutions to stay vigilant to suspicious transactions and take risk mitigation measures in higher-risk situations."

Singapore has also featured strongly in the sale of bonds produced by NUG, a parallel administration comprising ousted Myanmar lawmakers and their allies that is vying with the junta for international recognition. The junta has declared NUG a terrorist organisation and persecuted people for supporting it.

NUG's bonds come with two-year tenures and are sold in denominations ranging from US$100 to US$5,000. A recent chart released by NUG showed that, as at the end of last month, its agents in Singapore sold the most bonds by value, with sales in the US and Australia trailing a distant second and third.

Bob, a Singapore-based fund-raiser who declined to give his full name due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the Singapore-based activists achieved about US$12 million worth of bond sales.

Volunteers with an engineering or accounting background are leading the mobilisation, said Bob, a Myanmar national who went to Singapore in 1995 as a student and has been living in the Republic ever since. "The amount of money being raised has been growing because people are very eager to fight back against the military," he said.

Singapore's prominence in the online fund-raising movement has partly to do with the ease of banking transactions in the state, said Singapore-based Myanmar community leader Thein Win, who declined to reveal his real name for security reasons.

"Most of the Myanmar people here also earn more than other Myanmar people in the region," he said, referring to the engineers and technicians who call Singapore home.

"The country is very small, so people can gather and raise issues and talk. It's easy to organise. It's easy to transfer money to other countries. That's why Singapore is very important," he added.

Funds being raised in Singapore are sent to Myanmar through both formal and informal channels because Singapore also has an established network of hundi middlemen, he said. Under the hundi system, traders with bank accounts in both Myanmar and Singapore provide informal remittance services.

Meanwhile, several Myanmar-run businesses in Singapore draw a steady stream of customers because their owners channel their proceeds towards supporting their countrymen back home.

Ms May Kyaw Soe Nyunt, 49, for example, runs a weekend food stall at Peninsula Plaza which makes about $20,000 every month. The money goes to helping homeless and hungry villagers in Myanmar.

"The food is always sold out," she said. "Sometimes the customers pay more than the price."

She said she was careful to abide by Singapore laws while supporting what she regards as the legitimate government of Myanmar.

"I support NUG but we must do this peacefully," she said. "We don't want to disturb this country."

Additional reporting by Thiri