Myanmar’s military regime has launched a series of propaganda campaigns with the help of artists from film, music and theatre aimed at distracting attention from the armed resistance against the junta.
The Forever Group media company headed by U Win Maw is the organizer of the propaganda campaigns, some artists said. U Win Maw’s deputy is former military intelligence officer U Thein Tun Aung.
A TV series to honor Myanmar Police Force Day on October 1 was sponsored by Forever Group. The company is also involved in the production of a film to celebrate Armed Forces Day on March 27 next year.
Forever Group also organized a recent five-day concert held at City Hall in the capital Naypyitaw. In return, the regime has offered business concessions to the company.
The oldest private broadcaster in Myanmar, dating back to the time of the previous military regimes, the State Law and Order Restoration Council and State Peace and Development Council, Forever Group operates four television channels and two radio stations, Mandalay FM and Teen Radio.
U Win Maw, whose first job was as a sailor, established Forever Company to import and distribute computers and their parts, before setting up a graphics training center which later grew into the Forever Group. He also ran a film school and is the owner of the Myanmar Media Development Center.
In 2004, during the Than Shwe-led junta, then information minister U Kyaw Hsan planned to establish pro-military media to counter the local and foreign independent press. His idea to ‘attack the media with media’ proved popular with the then regime and resulted in the establishment of the free-to-air television channel, MRTV-4, a joint venture between Forever Group and the state-owned broadcaster Myanmar Radio and Television.
With the internet in its infancy in Myanmar, it was a boom time for television advertising. MRTV-4 was an entertainment-orientated channel and its programs became popular with the public, enabling it to charge an average of one million kyats for a 10-second commercial. Forever Group earned substantial revenue from advertising revenues and U Win Maw began building his fortune.
Some top cronies at the time were also interested in the broadcasting business, but U Win Maw was favored by the generals and soon became one of the richest men in the country.
His business was also exempted from paying tax by Than Shwe’s junta and then U Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government in the name of media development, enabling U Win Maw to grow even wealthier.
During U Thein Sein’s time as president, a six-acre plot of land near South Okkalapa Golf Club in Yangon owned by the Ministry of Information was leased out to Forever Group.
In return, MRTV-4 aired the sermons of a so-called Buddhist monk from the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, better known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha, a nationalist organization founded by U Thein Sein.
Known as ‘MRTV-4 Sayadaw’, or the Venerable, the monk was notorious for preaching anti-Muslim sermons. He reportedly also fathered a child, despite the fact that Buddhist monks are barred from having sex.
MRTV-4 also produced a series that starred Su Myat Nandar Aung, also known Su Lin Shein, a niece of the secretary of the current regime’s ruling State Administration Council, Lieutenant-General Aung Lin Dwe. It was the first time Su Myat Nandar Aung was the lead actress in a TV show. Her mother, Dr. Su Su Dwe, is a director-general in the junta-controlled Ministry of Health.
Forever Group continues to benefit from the present regime. The company received 10 billion kyats when the regime lent money to media companies in an effort to persuade them to back the junta.
It has acquired some 1,000 acres of land in a new studio city being built in Shan State’s Pindaya Township, and is building a studio in which four films can be shot simultaneously.
U Thein Tun Aung, Forever Group’s deputy and a graduate of the 22nd intake of the Defense Services Academy, has ensured that the company has enjoyed privileges under successive military regimes.
He served as the military intelligence chief in Bago Region under General Khin Nyunt. His brother was also a military intelligence officer. U Thein Tun Aung was transferred to the information ministry under the previous junta, while former Brigadier-General Kyaw Hsan was heading the ministry. He then became the secretary of the board of censors.
“Ko Thein Tun Aung is the only one who knows film, music and theatre artists. Producers had to bribe him to get their films past the board of censors. If an artist refused his request to act in a [propaganda] war movie, the board of censors wouldn’t pass that actor’s other films,” said one actor.
U Thein Tun Aung’s classmates in the 22nd intake at the Defense Services Academy included deputy junta chief Soe Win, Lieutenant General Yar Pyae and current information minister and former Major General Maung Maung Ohn.
He was also the classmate of former Lieutenant Colonel Ye Htut, who served as information minister in U Thein Sein’s government, former Navy chief Admiral Thura Thet Swe, and former military spy chief and home affairs minister Lieutenant General Kyaw Swe.
With a broad network of contacts, U Thein Tun Aung retired from the information ministry and was hired by Forever Group to help expand their business.
Since last year’s coup, U Thein Tun Aung has become the organizer of the junta’s propaganda movies and concerts.
“He has been talking artists into returning to show business as he knows the weaknesses of all the artists. Most of them have started working again,” said an artist.
Currently, U Thein Tun Aung is based in Naypyitaw where he has been helping the regime organize propaganda campaigns, music concerts and variety shows to celebrate Independence Day next month. He has also started filming propaganda movies and TV shows targeting resistance forces and striking government employees. Some will be aired on MRTV-4 soon.