RANGOON — According to a long-time National League for Democracy (NLD) member close to chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi, international news outlets’ incorrect branding of President-elect Htin Kyaw as her “former driver” is reminiscent of press from a darker era in Burma’s history.
After Htin Kyaw’s nomination for the presidency by the NLD in Parliament on March 10—for which he was officially selected the following week—international outlets including the Agence France-Presse wire service, CNN and the UK’s Telegraph all published headlines and content referring to him as Suu Kyi’s personal driver.
In reality, Htin Kyaw is a writer and an executive member of a Suu Kyi-led charity.
The NLD source wished to remain anonymous since the party’s official spokesperson was not available for comment, but he told The Irrawaddy that the reference caused embarrassment to senior members of the NLD, including the chairwoman.
“It is inappropriate to mention the country’s president as a driver,” he told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday. “The media shouldn’t write as [they] like. The way [they] write pisses off the leadership,” he added.
It should be noted that before his name was put forward for the presidency, Htin Kyaw was relatively unknown in Burma’s political scene, leading news outlets to scramble for biographical details in the wake of his nomination; the NLD did not release a statement on his personal background until about six hours after the announcement, by which time, errors had already become widespread.
The sting felt by party members over the incorrect label can perhaps be traced back to stories written over 15 years ago, when Htin Kyaw found himself on the receiving end of harsh words by Burma’s own military regime.
The NLD source said that articles written by the country’s military intelligence in the early 2000s reportedly also described Htin Kyaw’s role as that of a “driver.” At that time, the role was offered in an attempt to discredit him “as he sometimes drove for [Suu Kyi],” he explained.
In another article published by government mouthpiece The Mirror in September 2000, Htin Kyaw was referred to by the offensive and derogatory Burmese term “nga ti” for his role in supporting the NLD.
During the period of military rule, the Burmese regime carried out a sustained media attack on Suu Kyi and her party, labelling them “destructive elements” attempting to “disintegrate national solidarity and the Union.”
Led by the former Gen. Khin Nyunt until he was purged from the position in 2004, Burma’s military intelligence was notorious for its crackdowns on political opponents and human rights activists, sentencing them to lengthy stints in prison, which many did not survive.