George Soros Gets Down to Business With 88 Generation Leaders

By Lawi Weng 9 January 2013

RANGOON—Billionaire George Soros is back in Burma again, asking human rights activists and ethnic leaders how he can channel his aid to better help the country transition smoothly from decades of military rule.

Soros, a business magnate who gives about US $2 million in annual aid to Burma-related projects, met on Tuesday with leaders of the 88 Generation Students group, one of the country’s most prominent civil society organizations, in a fact-finding trip to Rangoon.

The 82-year-old Hungarian-American wanted to hear the activists’ views on the political transition to democracy, peace efforts and foreign investment, according to Pyone Cho, a leader in the group who went to the meeting.

“He told us he’ll bring experts [to Burma] who can teach us how to improve transparency and accountability in order to meet international standards,” Pyone Cho said of their discussions on foreign investment.

Soros channels his aid through his philanthropy organizations, the Open Society Institute and the Soros Foundation, and is known for assisting pro-democracy groups within Burma and outside the country.

The trip to Rangoon is the billionaire’s second visit to Burma since reformist President Thein Sein took power in March 2011. During his first visit, in December that year, he met pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi but was unable to talk with leaders from the 88 Generation Students group, many of whom were still in prison at the time.

Soros also met on Monday with ethnic minority leaders, including from armed groups, to discuss ongoing conflicts between ethnic rebels and the government army.

“We told him that the government has made peace from one side, but on another side they’re still attacking us” in Shan State and Kachin State, said Khun Htun Oo, a well-known Shan leader.

Thein Sein’s government has signed ceasefire agreements with 10 of the country’s 11 major ethnic groups, but a war between the government army and ethnic rebels continues in northern Kachin State, and clashes frequently break out elsewhere, including in Shan State.

Soros asked activists and ethnic leaders in Rangoon how he could push for quicker political change.

“I told him that without peace, this country cannot have democracy,” Khun Htun Oo said.

Soros founded the Open Society Institute more than 30 years ago. The philanthropy organization is now active in more than 70 countries around the world, working to promote democracy and human rights.

Soros donated more than $8 billion in aid between 1979 and 2011.