The world’s richest pagoda

Every year, hundreds of thousands of devotees climb the steps of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Carrying donations of all sorts, including money, jewellery and gold, the worshippers say their prayers under the stupa, topped by a ceremony vane embedded with diamonds and precious gems. More and more tourists are drawn by the golden glow of the magnificent pagoda, which dominates the Yangon skyline.

The donations from devotees and the entrance fees paid by foreign visitors provide significant income for the pagoda. “In one day about 1,500 to 2,000 foreigners and 10,000 Myanmar visit the pagoda,” said U Htun Aung Ngwe, second head of office for the Shwedagon Pagoda.

Boxes for cash donations are located around the pagoda and foreigners are required to pay an entrance fee, which was increased earlier this year from US$5 to $8 a person. With between 1,500 and 2,000 foreign visitors a day, the daily revenue from the entrance fee alone is from $12,000 to $16,000, or more than $4 million a year.

It’s no surprise that the bank accounts of Shwedagon Pagoda are bulging. The chairman of the pagoda’s board of trustees, U Sein Win Aung, said the dollar and FEC account contains about $16 million and the kyat account K30 billion, or about $30 million.

These large sums generate extra funds in the form of interest. “A lot of money, a lot of money we have. Around the world, Shwedagon is the richest pagoda,” he said, sitting behind his desk in the board of trustees’ offices, behind a cluster of small stupas near the southern entrance to the Shwedagon.

No exact figure was available for the value of the jewellery and gold donated to the pagoda. Gold plates donated to the pagoda are attached to its shimmering surface every year.

“One plate costs 6 lakh [K600,000] and we receive 15 to 20 plates a day, more than that on weekends,” said U Htun Aung Ngwe, a former military officer, as he displayed one of the golden plates taken from a safe behind his desk. It was bigger than a standard gold plate and cost K1.8 million, or about $1,800.

Decisions about the money that flows into the pagoda’s accounts are made by the board of trustees, which comprises prominent members of the community who are chosen by the government.

“The board has eleven members, who are appointed by the government,” said U Sein Win Aung. He declined to say who makes the appointments. U Sein Win Aung was selected because of his distinguished service to the country, including 35 years in the Tatmadaw. He subsequently served in the National Assembly and in the diplomatic service as an ambassador.

He added that there were strict selection criteria for trustees.

“The selected persons cannot be criminals or have a criminal record and they must own buildings and property,” he said. Trustees are required to own property is because it is an indication of wealth and it is believed that as wealthy men they have no need to steal and can be trusted with the large amounts being handled every day.

Poor people were not trusted to be members of the board of trustees, said U Sein Win Aung. “Poor men cannot save money.”

All of the money donated to the pagoda goes towards its maintenance and services. “The money is used for renovations, gilding and to pay our staff of about 700,” said U Sein Win Aung. “The board of trustees only manages the pagoda and decides how to spend the money, we do not take or handle the money.”

Monks in the monasteries around the pagoda, however, say they are not certain how all the money is spent. “Part of the money is for renovations and such, the other part of the money we cannot know for sure,” said a monk who has lived near the Shwedagon for many years. The monk said he and other monks were reluctant to say more about the management of the pagoda’s funds because they feared reprisals from the government. The government is involved in the management of the pagoda, he said.

“The government is above the board, that is why more companies are coming; actually no business is allowed on the premises of the pagoda,” said one monk, referring to the recent installation of ATM machines at the Shwedagon. The ATMs are incongruously sited at several places on the Shwedagon Pagoda terrace platform, amid ancient bells and the statues of hundreds of Buddha images.

The board denied any government involvement in the management of the pagoda and said the ATMs were installed to help foreign tourists obtain Myanmar currency.

“If the banks want to come and install an ATM they donate some amount of money to the pagoda and then they can operate an ATM,” said U Sein Win Aung. “We do not receive any financial support from the government, only from donors. The Ministry of Religious Affairs just makes suggestions, but they cannot manage or control us. Only the board of trustees can decide what we want to do for this pagoda, we are fully independent.”

The board is involved in transactions with the government, to buy gold from the Ministry of Mining. “They told us we cannot buy outside, because the rates are not the same. The government rate is better,” U Sein Win Aung said.


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