Crypto, Soros, and the global drive to fund a revolution

EVERY weekend in Singapore, the Burmese diaspora gathers at Peninsula Plaza for news – and a taste – of home.

Customers flock to a pop-up food stall adorned with a life-size image of Myanmar’s ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, where volunteers sell homemade delicacies such as tea leaf salad and Mohinga soup rice noodles and fish.

Booth owner May Kyaw Soe Nyunt says she earns around S$5,000 (RM15,500) in a weekend, with all funds sent to her homeland to help those who have to endure life under the military regime.

“I want the world to know that the people of Myanmar are suffering,” she said through an interpreter.

Singapore is one link in a global fundraising effort that has sprung up since the military took control of Myanmar last February. With the economy collapsing and no official international aid, the government in exile is seeking to raise US$1 billion (RM4 billion) to tend to its supporters and maintain its challenge to the rule of the armed forces, the Tatmadaw.

But there is a problem: the country’s banking system is tightly controlled by the junta, which designates the Democratic National Unity Government (NUG) as a terrorist group. So activists and the shadow government have to resort to unofficial channels to ensure money escapes the clutches of the regime – and for the NUG, that includes embracing cryptocurrencies.

It has already recognized Tether, a digital coin intended to replace the US dollar, as a way to speed up its exchanges, services and payment systems. But the NUG is ready to go further in defiance of Myanmar’s Central Bank, which banned the use of all digital currencies in 2020 and threatened imprisonment and fines for violations.

“When the time comes and if necessary, we will definitely expand the list of our approved cryptocurrencies,” said NUG Minister of Planning, Finance and Investment Tin Tun Naing.

While it’s unclear how much cryptocurrency the NUG has received, or how it can convert it into material support in the field, the group itself is gaining traction globally. The European and French parliaments passed resolutions recognizing the NUG as Myanmar’s only legitimate government, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted his support.

Many of those in the democratic resistance have long won the support of billionaire George Soros.

According to the current Ministry of Information, he visited Myanmar four times between March 2014 and January 2017 and met Aung San Suu Kyi twice, while her son Alexander Soros visited seven times from 2017 to 2020 and met her six times. Soros said in 2012 that he had supported the democracy movement in Myanmar for 20 years.

Myanmar’s military government announced last year that action would be taken against the Soros-backed Open Society Myanmar (OSM) for violating organization rules, freezing its savings totaling around US$4 million (17 million RM) deposited in four local banks. On the ground, the situation remains bleak, with Myanmar on the verge of a real military conflict. Many in the diaspora are willing to donate if it helps alleviate suffering and bring about a return to democracy.

At May Kyaw Soe Nyunt’s stand in Singapore, some are foregoing food and simply dropping bundles of cash. She says she can’t go home while the junta is in place.

So she does the next best thing by fundraising, arguing that she has nothing to worry about anymore. —Bloomberg