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Updated on February 7, 2019 From Frontier Myanmar

Rogue yogi: a fortune-teller faces trial for fraud

A woman who affected religious piety and claimed to have friends in high places has faced court accused of involvement in a multi-billion-kyat investment scam.
       A WOMAN who wore the dark coloured robes of a yogi, an ascetic Buddhist layperson, has appeared in a Yangon court accused of fraudulently obtaining billions of kyat after promising lucrative returns on investments.
       The woman allegedly defrauded dozens of palm-reading clients by claiming to have a close relationship with senior personnel at a Tatmadaw-owned conglomerate, Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd.
       The former yogi and fortune-teller Nanda Marlar, 44, appeared in Yangon’s Mingaladon Township Court on January 24 under her lay name, Daw Saw Myint Kyi. She faces charges for cheating others of property under section 420 of the Penal Code.
       She was offered bail at K1 billion, which could not be met with cash or with evidence of property of equivalent value.
       “Have you ever heard of anything like that?” she said of the unusually high bail sum, speaking to Frontier from a cell at the court. “The court did this intentionally to hold me in custody.”
       On January 15 she was also offered K1 billion bail after appearing in Yangon’s Hlaing Township court on similar charges. She remains in custody in Insein Prison.
       The charges arise from lawsuits filed against her in the two townships last year. She was arrested in her car while driving to Mandalay from Yangon on January 2.
       But this is not the first time that charges have been brought against Saw Myint Kyi. She has been jailed in Mandalay three times since 2005 after being convicted by courts there for “cheating” and “criminal breach of trust”.
       In 2013, after her release from prison and before she began masquerading as a yogi, Saw Myint Kyi was accused of defrauding K700 million from a Mandalay businesswoman, Ma Nay Zin Myint, and charged with cheating.
       Saw Myint Kyi, who is originally from Gangaw in Magway Region, dropped out of sight before reappearing in Yangon’s Mingaladon Township in 2015, dressed in the robes of a yogi to indicate that she lived an ascetic life by observing all eight Buddhist precepts, and offering to read palms.
       Palm-reading is enormously popular in Myanmar and the woman who called herself Nanda Marlar was soon predicting the future of an increasing number of gullible customers.
       Most of Nanda Marlar’s customers were keen to know what the lines on their hands foretold in terms of success in business or their health. Among those who heeded her advice and predictions was Ma Thandar Oo, 39, who filed the complaint in Mingaladon Township in May last year alleging that she was defrauded out of K105 million in December 2017.
       Thandar Oo said she consulted Nanda Marlar at the suggestion of her friend, named only as Wunna, who himself later said that he was cheated out of K700,000.
       Thandar Oo said Nanda Marlar was “a mastermind” at lying. When she first consulted Nanda Marlar in November 2017 she was advised to avoid eating pork and to make offerings of Eugenia and roses to images of the Buddha.
       For her second consultation, Thandar Oo was invited to accompany Nanda Marlar to a temple at Daik-U in Bago Region that she was told would bring her luck.
       Thandar Oo said that on a subsequent visit to the temple, when she was asked to donate K9 million to fund a statue of a dragon, Nanda Marlar claimed to have a close connection with officials at military-run Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. Thandar Oo was told that if she gave Nanda Marlar money to invest in MEHL she could double her investment in 40 days and use part of the returns to pay for the building of the dragon statue.
       Thandar Oo said she believed Nanda Marlar because she had heard her speaking on the phone with people she understood to be military officers at MEHL and because Nanda Marlar had shown footage of her being interviewed by Tatmadaw-owned Myawaddy TV.
       “Everything she did was aimed at enhancing her credibility,” including her religious piety, recalled Thandar Oo, who said Nanda Marlar displayed images of herself with celebrities and statues donated to temples by MEHL officials that bore their names.
       Thandar Oo said she gave Nanda Marlar K105 million to invest in MEHL. But when she called Nandar Marlar 40 days later, on January 5, 2018, to ask about her payout she was told it had been delayed because of personnel changes at the company.
       After being repeatedly put off, Thandar Oo eventually realised she had been swindled. She said she had to sell her car and other property to repay relatives and friends from whom she had borrowed to raise the K105 million.
       Thandar Oo said she and other victims had initially kept any misgivings to themselves because of a sign on the wall in Nandar Marlar’s consulting room warning of negative consequences for anyone who said bad things about her.
       “That is why in the beginning we stayed silent and did not talk about our concerns,” said Thandar Oo, a situation that changed after more victims spoke up.
       Thandar Oo alleged Nanda Marlar had told angry customers it would be no use going to the police because she was paying them off, and had even showed one of her victims a photo of herself with a police officer as confirmation of her close links with police.
       In what might have been a bizarre threat, a photograph of Nanda Marlar holding a pistol was posted on Facebook late last year, prompting a public outcry.
       Thandar Oo alleges that up to 100 people could have been swindled by Nanda Marlar but most were being tight-lipped either because they were embarrassed or were concerned about the consequences of coming forward.
       “I decided to speak out because I do not want others to experience what I have suffered,” Thandar Oo said.
       U Nay Myo Naing, who owns a travel agency and filed the complaint in Hlaing Township, alleges that Nanda Marlar defrauded him of K260 million, using a similar ruse to that which convinced Thandar Oo to part with her money.
       Thandar Oo said the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture should punish Nanda Marlar for abusing Buddhism. “I am so disappointed by people who exploit religion for their own sake,” she said.
       Pyithu Hluttaw MP U Aung Hlaing Win (Mingaladon, National League for Democracy) said he had heard that about 15 people in Mandalay, Yangon and Taunggyi, had been allegedly defrauded by Saw Myint Kyi of up to 10 billion kyat altogether, but there were likely to be more people involved.
       At the court in Mingaladon on January 24, Saw Myint Kyi told Frontier, “Whatever may have happened in the past, since becoming a yogi in 2015 I have lived well and haven’t done anything to harm others.
       “All the good things I have done were for religion,” she said.
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