The Master of the Myanmar Junta’s ‘Skyful of Lies’
By The Irrawaddy 14 June 2022
Min Aung Hlaing, who is responsible for the military coup in February last year, is viewed locally and internationally as a thick general.
As notorious as Min Aung Hlaing is Major General Zaw Min Tun, the leader of his information team—officially known as the Tatmadaw True News Information Team—who has earned the title of the regime’s biggest liar, for so tirelessly parroting its claims.
It has been Zaw Min Tun’s assignment to assert that ousted State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was corrupt (for which not a scrap of concrete evidence has been produced so far despite a series of trials since last year); to insist that the Myanmar military will not negotiate with the People’s Defense Force (PDF), but crush it (it now says it welcomes PDF members to rejoin society if they surrender); and to announce the Myanmar military’s intention to execute popular politicians who oppose the regime such as Ko Jimmy and Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw.
Following the coup, the two generals earned derogatory nicknames from the Myanmar people. Min Aung Hlaing is called “Ma Ah La”, the Burmese acronym for his name but also for the swear word “mother******”, and Zaw Min Tun is called “Zaw Mae Lone”. In Burmese, Mae Lone is a name normally given to a tubby dog with black fur. Zaw Min Tun is a stout man with a dark complexion.
Min Aung Hlaing will never find a man better suited than Zaw Min Tun to presenting an unabashed defense of his regime, its atrocities and its violence.
Though Zaw Min Tun has become Min Aung Hlaing’s favorite among dozens of generals, he has other faces that are less well known.
He is not, as many people think, the protégé of Min Aung Hlaing. He is in fact the henchman of Min Aung Hlaing’s deputy, Soe Win. Until the coup last year, Zaw Min Tun used to speak critically of Min Aung Hlaing and his family, while praising Soe Win. Nobody seems to know if Min Aung Hlaing was aware of Zaw Min Tun’s badmouthing him behind his back.
But Min Aung Hlaing seems to have decided that Zaw Min Tun is the right person to be his spokesperson after the major general called Daw Aung San Suu Kyi “stupid” in an interview with CNN last year in the aftermath of the coup.
When asked whether General Aung San, the father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the man who founded the Myanmar military more than seven decades ago, “would be horrified if he were alive today to see what was happening in the country,” Zaw Min Tun replied, “If I have to [imagine myself] in his place, he would say ‘How stupid my daughter is.’”
The army officer from Anyar
Zaw Min Tun, who graduated with the 37th intake of the Defense Services Academy, was a friend of U Zaw Htay, who served as spokesperson for Myanmar’s ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government. U Zaw Htay died last month.
The origins of both men lie in central Myanmar, known in Burmese as Anyar. U Zaw Htay was from Magwe and Zaw Min Tun hails from Yenanchaung.
They were dubbed “the parrot brothers”, referring to a Burmese story about two parrot brothers that are separated in a storm with one ending up in the hands of rebels and the other in the hands of a hermit.
People joked that U Zaw Htay was the “good parrot”, as the former major sided with the NLD government after being appointed its spokesperson, while Zaw Min Tun parroted the words of the bad guys.
Zaw Min Tun served as the director of the military’s Directorate of Public Relations and Psychological Warfare before being assigned to the military press team.
Since the coup, he has only granted interviews to journalists close to him, giving other journalists and media outlets the cold shoulder.
A journalist who is close the spokesman said he is a good and helpful man at heart, though he is now defending the military.
“The major general has helped a lot so that a few journalists inside the country were not arrested and could flee in time,” the journalist said. But this is hard to square with his defense of a regime that has arrested more than 100 journalists and continues to incarcerate about 50 in its notorious prisons.
Defending the butcher
At a press conference in April 2021, when asked about the death of more than 500 civilians in just two months since the February coup, he replied that the Myanmar military had the capacity to kill 500 people within hours, implying that the military had exercised restraint and should be thanked. “If we really shot at a crowd of protesters with assault rifles, that ‘more than 500 people’ you talked about would have died in hours,” he said.
Min Aung Hlaing, unlike his mentor and former military dictator Than Shwe, is not a quiet or reclusive man; his personal style more closely resembles that of former spy chief General Khin Nyunt, who was sometimes referred to as a “TV star”. The coup leader is a narcissist who loves to see his image on the 8 p.m. local news when stations broadcast clips of his speeches. He is also pleased to see his photos on the front pages of newspapers.
In this regard, it is Zaw Min Tun’s responsibility to keep the junta chief happy. Though he is only the deputy information minister, he has more influence than the minister, former Major General Maung Maung Ohn, and seldom needs to go to his office at the ministry, as he is always accompanying Min Aung Hlaing.
Pack of lies disguised as a ‘press conference’
Another of Zaw Min Tun’s tasks is to oversee the regime’s monthly press conferences.
People have no trust in these press conferences, which are only intended to cover up the daily atrocities of the regime across the country, and slam the civilian shadow government, known as the National Unity Government (NUG), and its armed wing, the PDF.
They joke that he is the person telling a “skyful of lies”—a Burmese phrase embraced by the previous regime in the early 1990s to denounce the BBC and VOA Myanmar services for their reporting on Myanmar under military rule at that time.
But the regime does not care about that, and focuses solely on maintaining the support of those who back the military. As such, Zaw Min Tun is responsible for spreading lies aimed at covering up the fact that the military coup has failed.
The first thing he does after each press conference is to run down from the dais and suck on a cigarette, according to a person who regularly attends them. It appears that smoking helps to relieve his guilty conscience for a while.
These media events reflect the standards of the regime; Zaw Min Tun does not understand that the function of a press conference is to report to the people.
Often, he uses swear words and obscenities that are inappropriate for use by the chief of the information team at state-level press conferences.
“He speaks like a crook. He speaks provocatively, which makes me angry,” Yangon resident Ko Htet said, describing the feeling he gets when watching the regime’s press conferences on TV.
Sometimes at the press conferences, Zaw Min Tun hits back at journalists with questions of his own, or rambles on about books, lyrics from songs and poems, and films. For professional journalists, the press conferences are something to be endured, often lasting for hours. The majority of the attendants are from online media sponsored by the regime.
Zaw Min Tun has a rare ability to tell lies non-stop for hours, without shame. None of the current generals can match him. In this regard, he is quite on a par with the spokesmen of former military regimes like U Khin Yi (a former police chief) and U Kyaw Hsan.
Ministers hated by the public
In their day, Than Shwe and his information minister Major General Kyaw Hsan made their names as a storytelling duo.
A famous phrase even emerged in response to Kyaw Hsan’s skill at lying: “Stop it, Kyaw Hsan.”
Kyaw Hsan strongly defended Than Shwe’s roadmap for democratization from the criticisms of local and foreign journalists. And he did not lose face, as Than Shwe stepped down after promulgating the constitution, as promised.
Then, ex-general Thein Sein came to power and Ye Htut, a former lieutenant-colonel, served as his spokesman. He attracted much ire from the people during his tenure as the spokesman.
He was able to leave office with dignity, however, as power was handed over to the NLD after its 2015 general election victory, despite many people predicting that the losing, quasi-civilian government would refuse to go.
Unlike their predecessors, however, Min Aung Hlaing and Zaw Min Tun have gone too far to save their reputations.
Far from relinquishing power like his mentor Than Shwe, who illegitimately ruled the country for 19 years, Min Aung Hlaing will assume the presidency if the regime-arranged 2023 general elections take place as planned.
Zaw Min Tun will therefore have to continue to lie for him.