A son of an admiral who served in the previous Myanmar military regime used a UNESCO-funded regional media forum to attack Myanmar’s democracy movement and independent journalists while defending the military’s 2021 coup.
The UNESCO supported Dili Dialogue Forum-2022 was held in Timor-Leste’s capital Dili on Aug. 25 and 26. The two-day meeting was attended by chairs of press councils from Timor-Leste, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar to discuss media challenges in their countries.
Aye Chan, son of ex-admiral and former minister Soe Thane, joined the forum as a member of the Myanmar Press Council (MPC), which has been reshuffled in the wake of the takeover to include pro-military writers and publication owners.
Soe Thane, as a minister in the previous military-proxy Thein Sein government (2011-early 2016), fooled the world into believing that Myanmar’s military dictatorship was at an end and that he himself and the administration to which he belonged were reform-minded. He was a rear admiral in the Myanmar Navy in the previous military regime, which ruled the country from 1988 to 2010.
Ten years later, his reformist veneer cracked with his support for the military’s latest coup against the democratically elected, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) government in 2021. The former admiral badmouthed her and the NLD government that succeeded Thein Sein administration while stoking pro-military sentiment and rumor-based nationalism.
At the Dili forum, Aye Chan followed in his dad’s footsteps, voicing support for the military takeover and attacking the NLD government while defaming Myanmar’s independent media, which has been reporting the regime’s day-to-day atrocities against its own people to the world. So far, the junta has killed more than 2,000 people while raiding and burning communities that oppose military rule.
His presentation merely parroted the regime’s worn-out excuses for the coup: accusing the NLD of voter fraud during the 2020 election, something local and international poll observers denied. He called the NLD “the party of the corrupt” and said “they cheated the election”, resulting in the coup. Repeating the regime’s propaganda, he defamed the country’s anti-regime movement and its attempt to restore democracy, calling it “terrorism”.
Echoing the regime’s spokesman and Deputy Information Minister Major General Zaw Min Tun, Aye Chan said Myanmar media, especially those in exile, had contributed to the spread of misinformation and disinformation after the coup, becoming a tool for terrorists. The regime has branded the parallel National Unity Government (NUG) and its armed wing, the People’s Defense Force (PDF) as terrorists for their ongoing attempts to root out the military dictatorship.
“Twenty percent of donations collected by them [the NUG and PDF groups] go to media for writing fake news on Facebook,” he said, citing a “captured terrorist” as the source.
However, he didn’t mention the junta’s crackdown on local media. Since the takeover, 135 journalists have been arrested, and six were sentenced to prison in March this year alone, according to Detained Journalists Information Myanmar. Three journalists were killed last year. The regime has revoked the licenses of nine media outlets and the country was ranked 140th out of 180 countries in the 2021 Global Press Freedom Index. Currently, independent media barely exist inside the country as many journalists have gone into hiding or fled. A number of mainstream independent media, including The Irrawaddy, now operate from exile.
In response to Aye Chan’s remarks at the forum, 33 independent Myanmar media organizations on Friday strongly condemned the representation of the so-called Myanmar Press Council at the Dili Dialogue Forum, saying its characterization of Myanmar’s current media situation was regime misinformation.
“Independent media organizations in Myanmar strongly condemn regional and international media organizations and governments that have invited the Myanmar Military Council and engaged in spreading misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech,” it said.
UNESCO’s Jakarta office, which funded the forum, didn’t respond to The Irrawaddy’s email asking for comments.
Like father like son
In the wake of the 2021 military takeover, Aye Chan’s father Soe Thane praised coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s seizure of power from the NLD as “a very smart move.” The former admiral couldn’t hide his elation at the takeover, writing: “Our Myanmar’s independence was restored on Feb. 1, 2021.”
It was a stark contrast to his previous image as a reformist minister taking steps to help Myanmar reengage with the world as part of the political, economic and social reforms during the Thein Sein administration. In his latest book, The Hidden History of Burma, historian Thant Myint-U, who served as an adviser to that administration, called him the “principle architect of the normalization of ties with the West” and “Burma’s main cheerleader abroad, speaking frankly but optimistically about the country’s prospects.”
Aye Chan, 49, joined the Myanmar Press Council as the owner of Myanmar Insider, a publication he has used to promote regime propaganda, such as the claim of NLD vote fraud. In this article including his lame and clumsy arguments for why the anti-regime activities would fail, and he openly admits at the end: “Myanmar Insider has become a mouthpiece for the junta.”
Furthermore, the address of the publication—the same as a KFC outlet on Bogyoke Aung San Road in downtown Yangon—is questionable, as the building used to be a state asset under the Transportation Department. How it ended up in Aye Chan’s hands is unknown. On the Myanmar Insider website, the building is listed as being for rent in an ad for “quality office space in central downtown.”
Moreover, according to his LinkedIn profile, Aye Chan is the chairman of the E-Commerce Association of Myanmar and deputy chairman of the Myanmar Digital Economy Association. He is the director of rgo47, a popular online shopping site that has become one of the targets of a popular boycott of military-related businesses since the coup. His wife is Win Nandar Thike.
Aye Chan has two sisters, Theta Aye and Yimon Aye.
Theta Aye is the acting CEO of Mother Finance Co., Ltd., the first digital lending mobile application platform in Myanmar. She used to be deputy managing director at KBZ Group and director at Dymon Asia Capital, a Temasek Holdings-backed Southeast Asia-focused private equity fund. She received her undergraduate and graduate education at the University of Oxford (UK), Massachusetts Institution of Technology (US) and Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (Singapore).
Yimon Aye is a chemist and molecular biologist and a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL). Since January 2022, she has been serving as an associate editor of ACS Chemical Biology.
The trio were found to have studied in Singapore, England and the US while their father Soe Than was internationally sanctioned. For example, when Soe Thane was among the former regime individuals targeted by international sanctions in the early 2000s, Aye Chan was studying for an MBA at Emory University in the US, according to his LinkedIn profile. His father was a rear admiral at the time.
As President’s Office minister in the Thein Sein administration, Soe Thane acted as the country’s economic czar and was widely believed to be corrupt. In that capacity, he chaired the Myanmar International Cooperation Agency (MICA), a quasi-governmental agency, in 2012 to coordinate with local and foreign companies to develop underutilized assets—mainly farms, fisheries, and plants. MICA took control of about 60 factories and businesses and hundreds of acres of land. It then signed controversial land lease deals with the private sector and failed to publicize the details. In 2017, the Upper House voted to abolish it following allegations that the agency was thoroughly corrupt.