The military junta in Myanmar has detained an official from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations and has frozen the billionaire financier’s bank accounts in the country under the suspicion that the group funded elements opposed to the February coup in the country, according to news reports.
The coup came after the party of controversial pro-democracy campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide victory in the November elections, Reuters reported on March 16.
Alleging election fraud, the country’s powerful military, known as the Tatmadaw, seized power and arrested Suu Kyi.
In the immediate aftermath of the coup, during mass civil disobedience in the country, the Global New Light of Myanmar — a military propaganda newspaper — alleged that Open Society Myanmar withdrew $1.4 million from its account at the Small and Medium Enterprise Development Bank, or SMED, according to Reuters.
That money then was exchanged into the local currency, the kyat; the military newspaper said this was done “without following the necessary rules and regulations.”
The newspaper also published a picture of Suu Kyi with Soros from 2016 in New York and claimed she had met several times with the Hungarian-born American left-wing philanthropist, the Financial Times reported.
According to The Irrawaddy, government officials took control of $3.81 million and 375 million kyats in Open Society Myanmar accounts at four private banks, including SMED.
SMED itself also finds itself in trouble with the government for letting Open Society Myanmar withdraw the $1.4 million and deposit $5 million even though it hadn’t obtained approval from authorities.
The government announced it also was looking for 11 other Open Society Myanmar (OSM) officials to interrogate them, according to Reuters.
As for evidence of whether this money actually was withdrawn, deposited or spent on civil disobedience causes, that’s entirely lacking.
“Claims of financial misconduct against OSM staff are completely false with no legal basis, and we call for the immediate release of OSM’s finance manager Phyu Pa Pa Thaw,” Binaifer Nowrojee, OSM’s vice president for organizational transformation, told the Financial Times.
“The military is wrongfully pursuing staff members who have done nothing wrong and have, in fact, spent years working to improve healthcare, education and more for the people of Myanmar,” she continued. “These false allegations are evidently an attempt to distract from what is really happening and to discredit those who wish for a return to peace and democracy in Myanmar.”
In a separate emailed statement on March 16, the Open Society Foundations insisted none of the transactions were illegal and demanded the release of its worker, according to Reuters.
“The Open Society Foundations are deeply concerned by reports that an OSM (Open Society Myanmar) staff member has been detained in Myanmar,” the statement read.
“We call for her immediate release. We are alarmed by reports that authorities are seeking to interrogate other staff members.”
“Claims of financial misconduct, including that OSM acted illegally by withdrawing their own funds in local currency from the [SMED] bank, are false,” the letter continued.
“Claims that OSM used these funds for illegal purposes are false. These funds were used for purposes fully within the objectives of OSM.”
It was unclear whether the “objectives of OSM” included allying with and giving aid to demonstrators and opposition forces in Myanmar, which have been demanding the release of Suu Kyi and the recognition of her victory in November.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won 396 out of 476 seats, compared with only 33 for the military’s party. While the military’s allegations of fraud were Myanmar’s Union Election Commission, the generals seized power in the early morning hours of Feb. 1.
Suu Kyi is a controversial figure in international circles, having defended the military’s alleged genocide and displacement of several ethnic groups, including the majority-Muslim Rohingya, as part of a security operation.
Her defenders have claimed her refusal to condemn the action is because whatever democracy Myanmar has exists at the grace of the military — as the coup proved.
Protests in Myanmar have been ongoing since February, with 612 dead as of Thursday morning, according to The Irrawaddy. The latest clashes happened in the northwest portion of the country, where they reported dozens of civilians were killed in two separate clashes with military forces.
In Taze Township, 11 were killed and 30 injured Wednesday evening into Thursday morning when protesters armed with homemade firearms, slingshots and other improvised weapons were met with Tatmadaw forces who used live rounds and explosives.
The village was cleared by Thursday, with loudspeakers warning that anyone on the street would be shot.
As for the truth of the charges — whether Soros and the OSF aided the demonstrators or moved funds around illegally — it’s worth remembering the billionaire remains a bogeyman in Southeast Asia.
While Soros is a divisive figure worldwide for his activism on behalf of leftist causes and against governments or leaders he finds either distasteful or despotic — and, indeed, he often has trouble discerning the difference between the two — his investments are held by some to be one of the initial causes of the Asian financial crisis of 1997.
As Business Insider notes, the Quantum Fund, which was partially controlled by Soros, bet against Asian currencies generally and the currencies of Malaysia and Thailand specifically that year. His short-selling position on the Thai baht eventually forced the central bank to devalue its currency, which was the first domino to fall in a crisis that lasted until 1998.
Soros has argued that the baht was overvalued and that, if the central bank had just devalued it, “The adjustment would have occurred sooner and been less painful. But the authorities allowed their reserves to run down; the break, when it came, was catastrophic.”
As for the situation in Myanmar, don’t expect it to get any better, at least not in the near term.
The news outlet Nikkei Asia says Suu Kyi’s next court appearance is scheduled for April 22, although this largely is a formality. (So too, one suspects, would be any trial of an Open Society Myanmar official.)
Beijing has had discussions with both sides in the conflict and urged them to resolve it through dialogue; Myanmar is a neighbor of China’s and has been the recipient of significant Chinese investment, particularly through the so-called “Belt and Road” infrastructure plan, according to Reuters.
In the United States, the Biden administration issued sanctions against some generals in Myanmar, according to The New York Times, but there hasn’t been much substantive movement since then.
Last Sunday, President Joe Biden called the violence in Myanmar “absolutely outrageous” and said that “based on the reporting I’ve gotten, an awful lot of people have been killed totally unnecessarily,” language that’s both obvious and unlikely to move the junta, according to Deutsche Welle.
“They used explosives and automatic fire against protesters. It is unacceptable. This is not a real war,” one protester told The Irrawaddy after the military attacked demonstrators in Taze Township on Wednesday.
It looks as if no one’s efforts — be they George Soros’, Joe Biden’s or Xi Jinping’s, China’s Communist Party leader — are going to stop that ugly reality any time in the near future.