Soros philanthropic group demands release of staff member held in Myanmar

(Reuters) - The Open Society Foundations, a philanthropic organisation founded by billionaire George Soros, called on Tuesday for the immediate release of a staff member held in Myanmar and said allegations of financial misconduct were false.

State media in Myanmar reported that authorities had detained an official from the Open Society Myanmar and were looking for 11 other employees on suspicion the group passed funds to opponents of a Feb. 1 coup.

“The Open Society Foundations are deeply concerned by reports that an OSM (Open Society Myanmar) staff member has been detained in Myanmar,” Open Society Foundations said in an emailed statement.

“We call for her immediate release. We are alarmed by reports that authorities are seeking to interrogate other staff members.”

Opponents of military rule launched a civil disobedience movement (CDM) of strikes to press the generals to reverse their coup, to free detained government leader Aung San Suu Kyi and to recognise her party’s Nov. 8 election victory.

The military has responded with a crackdown on pro-democracy protests, killing more than 180 people, a human rights group said, while taking legal action against Suu Kyi and others.

The Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper, which has been for years a mouthpiece of the military, said OSM transferred funds without seeking permission from the Foreign Exchange Management Department.

The group then exchanged $1.4 million into Myanmar’s kyat currency “without following the necessary rules and regulations”, the paper said.

“Claims of financial misconduct, including that OSM acted illegally by withdrawing their own funds in local currency from the SMID bank, are false,” Open Society Foundations said.

“Claims that OSM used these funds for illegal purposes are false. These funds were used for purposes fully within the objectives of OSM.”

The Global New Light of Myanmar paper suggested that unidentified non-governmental organisations were “providing cash assistance to CDM movements”.

The paper said the finance officer of Open Society Myanmar, Phyu Pa Pa Thaw, had been interrogated since last Friday about “that cash flow into the CDM movement”.

Authorities were looking for 11 other OSM employees to interrogate them, it added.

“These allegations suggest a worrying attempt to attack and discredit those who wish for a return to peace and democracy in Myanmar,” The Open Society Foundations said.

The Open Society Foundations says it is the world’s largest private funder of independent groups working for justice, democratic governance, and human rights.

It provides grants through a network of national and regional foundations and offices, funding an array of projects.

It says the Myanmar foundation supports “civil society and groups representing marginalized people to encourage a representative democracy to take root”.

Authoritarian governments regularly attack Soros and his organisation for its work, and he has been the target of conspiracy theories and social media misinformation for years.

The newspaper published a picture of Suu Kyi meeting Soros in 2016 in New York and of her meeting his son, Alexander Soros, in Myanmar, but it did not link Suu Kyi or the Open Society Foundations to any alleged irregular transfer of funds.

Writing by Robert Birsel and Guy Faulconbridge in London; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Howard Goller