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Banking on Shwedagon

File photo: Devotees flock to Shwedagon Pagoda in 2015.

Burma’s most iconic Buddhist monument, Shwedagon Pagoda, has a fund of nearly 70 billion kyat (US$52 million) sitting in a bank account, earning yearly interest of up to 4bn kyat, according to the Yangon Minister for Social Welfare Naingan Lin.

The sums were disclosed on Tuesday when the minister responded to a question raised in the regional parliament about charitable donations received at religious sites across the city, including Shwedagon, Sule, Kabar Aye, and Botahtaung pagodas.

“The Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs coordinates with the regional government to ensure that the qualified members of the pagoda’s Board of Trustees act with good morals and credibility,” said Naigan Lin, following his disclosure that total donations of 69.9538 bn kyat had been deposited in an account.

“The amount of interest earned in the 2016 was 3,334bn kyat and in 2017 it was 4.0764bn kyat,” he said.

The minister also provided figures for the amount of charitable donations received and banked at the other main Buddhist temples in Yangon: Sule Pagoda (809 million kyat); Kabar Aye Pagoda (2.44bn kyat); Botahtaung Pagoda (2.44bn kyat); and Swedawmyat Pagoda (1.5bn kyat).

For several years in a row, Burma has been declared the “most generous country in the world” by the Charities Aid Foundation’s World Giving Index. In 2017, it said that 91 percent of Burmese residents gave money to charity in the past year.

Much of that generosity can be attributed to Buddhist devotees who offer donations to and help maintain their local temples.

Shwedagon, which according to myths and legend is over 2,000 years old, is particularly sacred because it is believed to house several strands of hair from the Buddha. Its stupa, pasted in tons of gold leaf over the years by daily devotees, is perhaps the country’s most recognisable symbol.

Shwedagon has long captured the imaginations of visitors, from author Rudyard Kipling — who called it a “beautiful winking wonder” after a visit in the late 19th century — to US President Barack Obama in 2012.