Days before coup, IMF sent Myanmar $465m in emergency aid it cannot get back

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – Last week, the International Monetary Fund sent US$350 million (S$465 million) in cash to the Myanmar government, part of a no-strings-attached emergency aid package to help the country battle the coronavirus pandemic.

Days later, military leaders seized power and detained elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other elected officials, in what the US State Department said on Tuesday (Feb 2) constituted a coup.

There appears to be little the IMF can do to claw back the funds, part of rapid-disbursing Covid-19 financing programmes with almost no conditions and approved by the IMF board on Jan 13, sources familiar with the payments and international finance experts said.

“We are following the unfolding developments closely. We are deeply concerned about the impact of events on the economy and on the people of Myanmar,” an IMF spokesperson said in a statement emailed to Reuters on Tuesday, confirming that the payment was completed last week.

US President Joe Biden, facing his first international crisis since taking office less than two weeks ago, has threatened new sanctions against the generals, and the State Department said it would review its foreign assistance to the southeast Asian country.

The United States is the dominant shareholder in the IMF, which has provided Myanmar with US$700 million (S$931.7 million) in emergency coronavirus financing over the past seven months, including last week’s payment, which included US$116.6 million through the IMF’s Rapid Credit Facility and US$233.4 million through the Rapid Financing Instrument.

The Fund said in a statement on Jan 13 that the money would help Myanmar meet “urgent balance-of-payments needs arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, especially the government’s recovery measures to ensure macroeconomic and financial stability while supporting affected sectors and vulnerable groups.” Unlike the IMF’s regular financing programmes, which have performance benchmarks, the emergency aid is provided quickly, with no way to yank it back.

“It’s not a programme that was negotiated, there isn’t conditionality and there aren’t forward-looking reviews with disbursements tied to those reviews,” said Stephanie Segal, a former IMF economist and US Treasury official now with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“I’m not aware of any precedent where money that’s been approved by the IMF board can be recalled,” Segal added.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis last year, the IMF has provided emergency financing to 80 countries.

The timing of the latest disbursement to Myanmar was unfortunate, two sources familiar with the payments said, and pointed to the risks of using rapid financing that gives governments broad discretion over how they spend the money.

The best-case scenario is that the Myanmar government that emerges from the current political turmoil will spend the money appropriately because it wants to have a productive relationship with the Fund, one of the sources said.

The IMF’s counterparty in Myanmar is the central bank.

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