Southeast Asia needs strong cryptocurrency laws to address fraud, terror financing

Photo: voytek pavlik, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Southeast Asian governments remain divided about how to regulate cryptocurrencies even as the popularity of digital assets surges. Regulators need to take concrete steps as cryptocurrencies increase the threat of online financial fraud and have been used to fund terrorism.

By Niranjan Marjani

The growing popularity of cryptocurrencies in Southeast Asia has governments struggling with the question of how they should be regulated. As cryptocurrencies are privately controlled and not considered legal tender in most countries, the question of governance presents new challenges for financial regulators.

Southeast Asian governments need to coordinate and act quickly, as cryptocurrencies increase the risk of fraud in the growing e-commerce industry and have also already been used to channel finances to terrorist groups.

ASEAN countries need to act quickly on cryptocurrency policies

The popularity of cryptocurrencies is growing in parallel to the growth of e-commerce in Southeast Asia. However, ASEAN countries have yet to take a proactive approach to their regulation.

With the growing digitization of trade and commerce, online financial fraud is on the rise in Southeast Asia. A report by ADVANCE.AI, an artificial intelligence company headquartered in Singapore, showed one in three people in Southeast Asia have experienced online fraud. The report found that the current boom in e-commerce has led to increased incidents of online fraud and that online fraud will be a major business risk for organizations across Southeast Asia in the coming years.

Southeast Asia’s economy is among the fastest growing in the world and is projected to be the fourth-largest regional economy by 2030. Analysts also expect this growth to boost the e-commerce market, with the digital economy set to grow from US$31 billion in 2015 to US$197 billion by 2025. Revenue from the e-commerce market in Southeast Asia in 2021 is expected to be US$67.6 billion, representing annual growth of 10.3%.

Blockchain companies are also looking to take advantage of Southeast Asia’s growing digital economy, as the growth of e-commerce has not been matched by growth in the number of people connected to the banking system. Blockchain companies are offering cryptocurrency as an alternate mode of payment to the estimated438 million unbanked people in Southeast Asia.

But as the number of Southeast Asians who are interested in cryptocurrency is growing most are not fully aware of the risks involved, according to one report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Increased use of cryptocurrency poses a greater risk of online fraud. The ADVANCE.AI report states that 71% of online fraud is due to identity theft caused by problems in identity verification. In cryptocurrency transactions, users can keep their identities hidden, making these transactions more prone to fraud. As Southeast Asia’s digital economy continues to grow, cryptocurrencies may further increase the threat of fraud.

Photo: Infosec Images / shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Cryptocurrencies used in terrorism financing

According to a report in May 2020 by the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR), terrorism financing has increased in Southeast Asia, in some cases facilitated using cryptocurrencies. In the Philippines, terror groups linked to the Islamic State (IS) have been using cryptocurrencies to finance their terror operations.

The PIPVTR report found that financing of terrorism through cryptocurrencies involves two phases: the financiers purchase Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies and terrorist groups or their affiliates convert it back into conventional currency. These exchanges are difficult to trace and the identities of those involved are hidden.

Cryptocurrencies have been used for terror funding in Southeast Asia since at least 2016, when Bahrun Maim, an Indonesian terrorist who fought alongside IS in Syria, used Bitcoin to finance terror activities in his home country. Indonesia’s Financial Intelligence Unit, PPATK (Indonesian Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Center),reported that Bahrun routed funds to Indonesia through Bitcoin and Paypal. These funds were used to finance the suicide attack at the Solo Police Headquarters in Central Java in July 2016. PPATK also found that fraudulent financial transactions linked to terrorist activities had doubled in 2016 to 25, up from 12 in the previous year.

The legal status of cryptocurrencies varies across Southeast Asia

Southeast Asian countries have different stands on regulating cryptocurrency.

Brunei, Laos and Myanmar have banned the use of cryptocurrency. The central banks of these three countries—Autoriti Monetari Brunei Darussalam (AMBD), the Bank of the Lao PDR and the Central Bank of Myanmar—consider cryptocurrency transactions as illegal.

Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand have all begun to regulate cryptocurrency transactions and exchanges.

In February 2019, Indonesia’s Commodity Futures Trading Regulatory Agency (Bappebti) moved to regulate crypto asset trading in the futures exchange. This regulation lays down the requirements for all future exchanges and clearing houses dealing with crypto assets, such as capital requirements, security systems and risk assessment processes.

In Malaysia, the Securities Commission Malaysia (SC) regulates digital currency platforms operating in the country, dictating rules for initial exchange offerings (IEO) and digital asset custodians (DACs). All IEO platforms operating Malaysia must register with the SC.  

Photo: Wowzamboangacity at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the Philippines, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) issued its Guidelines for Virtual Currency Exchanges in 2017, requiring all virtual currency exchanges to comply with the same reporting and security requirements as money changers or foreign exchange dealers. Virtual currency exchanges are also required to work with the country’s Anti-Money Laundering Council. In January 2021, the BSP expanded the country’s cryptocurrency regulations in line with the recommendations of the intergovernmental Financial Actions Task Force (FATF).

In Singapore, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) has moved to regulate cryptocurrency transactions to preventing money laundering and terror financing but stated that its laws will not to interfere with innovation. As Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said of the regulations, “We will continue to encourage experiments in the blockchain space that may involve the use of cryptocurrencies. Some of these innovations could turn out to be socially or economically useful. But equally, we will stay alert to new risks.”

As for Thailand, its government has regulated digital assets including cryptocurrencies and tokens under the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) since 2018.

In Vietnam, the government is still considering a legal framework for cryptocurrency transactions that would allow authorities to manage e-transactions and legally protect citizens. At present, Vietnam hasn’t classified cryptocurrencies as a legal mode of payment, “goods and services” or “properties and assets”.  

Rather than focusing on regulation, Cambodia announced the launch of its own digital currency, Bakong, in November 2020. Though not a cryptocurrency, Bakong supports transactions in riel and US dollars and the Cambodian government hopes to use it to increase financial inclusion, particularly among the country’s unbanked population.

At the moment, the regulation of cryptocurrencies is a challenge for governments across the world and stances vary widely as to how they should be controlled. As the digital economy and e-commerce grow, governments must move quickly to address the gaps in cryptocurrency regulation in order to prevent financial fraud and financing of terrorism.

About the Author

Niranjan Marjani
Niranjan Marjani is an Independent journalist and researcher based in Vadodara, India. His areas of specialisation are international relations and geopolitics.