Japanese executive among dozens arrested in Myanmar for allegedly selling rice above set prices

BANGKOK — Myanmar’s military government has arrested a Japanese business executive, along with dozens of local businessmen, for allegedly selling rice at prices well above the officially regulated ones, state-run media said Monday.

The reports said Hiroshi Kasamatsu, a director of Aeon Orange, was detained. Aeon Orange operates several supermarkets in Myanmar and is part of Japan’s giant Aeon retail group. Japanese media reports confirmed that Kasamatsu is one of its executives.

Rice is vital as Myanmar struggles to keep its economy on an even keel as civil war disrupts efforts to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. The army seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2021, triggering nonviolent protests that have evolved into armed resistance.

The state-run Myanma Alinn newspaper reported Monday that the arrests for allegedly selling rice for prices ranging from 31% to 70% over official prices set by the Myanmar Rice Federation involved 62 suspects, 102 warehouses, 53 supermarkets and superstores, 25 mills and seven other shops in major cities.

The violations could bring prison terms of six months to three years in 11 cases, including Kasamatsu’s, and fines and tax payments for the others.

A World Bank report last month said nearly a third of people in Myanmar are living in poverty and the economy is about 10% smaller than before the pandemic. The displacement of more than 3 million people from their homes by fighting has caused a major humanitarian crisis.

Meanwhile, the value of Myanmar’s currency, the kyat, has sunk and many businesses are struggling with the gap between the official currency exchange rate set by the central bank of 2,100 kyat to the dollar and the more widely used free market rate of about 4,500 to the dollar.

Japan has historically maintained warm relations with Myanmar. It takes a softer line toward Myanmar’s current military government than many Western nations, which treat it as a pariah state for its poor human rights record and undermining of democracy and have imposed economic and political sanctions.

In Tokyo, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi confirmed to reporters that a male Japanese citizen, whom he didn’t name, was being investigated at a police station in Yangon.

Hayashi said the Japanese government will provide necessary support for him through the embassy and “the government of Japan will call on the local authorities to release the Japanese national as soon as possible.”

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