Six-and-a-half months after Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his generals staged a coup and launched a brutal crackdown on popular resistance to the power grab, it is becoming increasingly clear that Myanmar is seeing a return to the dark old days of pre-2011 junta rule. It is particularly evident in the abolition of the freedom of expression and press freedom that the people of Myanmar were given a taste of for almost a decade. That also means that the military has killed the hopes and aspirations of millions, young and old—and that civil-military relations, a favorite subject of national and international studies, are beyond repair. The military has become the country’s most hated institution, and the political gobbledygook it produces in print and online to justify its actions would be laughable, if not for the tragedy that surrounds the bloody coup and its aftermath.
The appointment of an ex-military officer who writes under the peculiar name Chit Naing (Sate Pyin Nyar), or Chit Naing (Psychology), as the Information Minister after the coup was a clear indication of what to expect. Mischievous people with a sense of humor usually refer to him as Chit Naing (Sate Yaw Ga), or Chit Naing (Mental Case). His literary credentials rest primarily on the quantity of books he has produced, rather than their quality. Vendors who used to sell his writings on pavements in the old capital Yangon stopped doing that after the coup, while pictures on social media show the books being torn apart both by booksellers and angry customers. Chit Naing (Psychology) was promoted to “Minister of the Union Government Office” when Min Aung Hlaing formed a “Caretaker Government” on Aug. 1, which may mean that we will see more of his writings being churned out by the military’s propaganda machine.
The junta’s first lengthy attempt at disseminating its version of events to the outside world came in the form of a 118-page book that was produced in time for Min Aung Hlaing’s trip to Jakarta on April 24 to meet representatives of ASEAN. Titled “The Current Political Situation in Myanmar” and written in quaintly jumbled English, it contains accusations of protester violence including alleged attacks on the police, details of supposed fraud in the 2020 election, several references to the 2008 constitution to “prove” that the military, known as the Tatmadaw, had not broken any laws—and then an assertion and a pledge: “the Tatmadaw always keeps its promise” (sic) and “we can reassure all the member states that we will be fully cooperating with all of friendly member states including other countries across the world.” (sic) Then, the supposed author, Min Aung Hlaing, added a caveat: “We can vividly learn that the interesting issues have emerged in all respective ASEAN member states…I kindly remind all of you that we may possibly face with certain difficulties, it we miss something at the certain corner.” (sic)
Before that, the military produced much shorter newsletters called “Information Sheet” with headlines such as “Containing Riotous Situations in Some Townships in Line with Rules and Regulations”, “The Rioters’ Conducting Anarchic Mob like Activities and Sabotage Activities”, and “Findings on the Announcement of UEC [Union Election Commission] regarding the Inspection of the Voter Lists and Withdrawal/Receipt/Use Remaining Ballot Papers.” An amnesty announcement from the military’s “information team” published in the official newspaper The Global New Light of Myanmar on April 2 was headlined: “Re-invitation to Myanmar citizens who have arrived at various regions for many reasons.”
While it may be easy to make fun of the military spokespersons’ lack of proficiency in English, their mumbo jumbo doesn’t make any more sense in Burmese, thus echoing the disinformation campaigns of old juntas, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which was set up after the 1988 massacres and in 1997 became the more palatably named State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).
In the late 1980s, the military published collections of speeches by SLORC chairman General Saw Maung, and, at the same time, a book titled “A Skyful of Lies” (sic) accusing the BBC, the VOA and other foreign broadcasters of reporting falsehoods about the situation in Myanmar. But street vendors were soon forbidden to sell both books at the same time because crafty street vendors would first hold up one of the them, saying “General Saw Maung’s speeches!”, then lower their hand and raise the other holding the book about the broadcasters: “All lies!” So it became “General Saw Maung’s speeches! All lies!” It is unclear whether any vendors were arrested for making this rather humorous protest against military rule.
In fact, the lies begin on the front page of The Global New Light of Myanmar and its Burmese edition, Myanmar Alin. “Founded in 1914” has at last been taken off the English edition but it remains on the Burmese version. While it is true that a vernacular newspaper called Myanma Alin with The New Light of Myanmar on the front page also in English was founded in 1914, it has nothing to do with today’s paper of the same name. The real New Light of Myanmar was very outspoken against colonial rule and, from 1920 to 1947, managed by U Tin, a well-respected newspaperman who became independent Myanmar’s first Minister of Finance and Revenue. But that paper was shut down by the military in 1969.
After general Ne Win’s coup in 1962, his ruling Burma Socialist Program Party began publishing its own, tabloid-sized propaganda sheet called The Working People’s Daily in English and Loktha Pyithu Nezin in Burmese. That name was not in line with the new, ostensibly free-market oriented policies that were introduced after 1988, so the name of the state organ was changed to The New Light of Myanmar and Myanma Alin respectively. U Tin would turn in his grave if he knew about this theft of the name of his paper. Its website claims that it is “Myanmar’s oldest English daily” and the lie has even made it into Wikipedia, where it says that “the newspaper was founded in 1914.”
How many others this has fooled is hard to say, but it can’t include many of those who are familiar with the history of the media in Myanmar. Successive attempts by the generals at presenting themselves in a more favorable light have been equally unsuccessful. After the February coup, the latest junta, the State Administration Council (SAC), hired Dickens & Madson, a firm headed by Israeli-Canadian lobbyist Ari Ben-Menashe, to help polish its image. According to documents filed with the US Justice Department, the contract Dickens & Madson signed with Myanmar’s military leadership is worth US$2 million and is designed to explain “the real situation in the country” and to communicate with the United States and other counties who had “misunderstood them.”
Ben-Menashe’s own record is far from stellar. A former Israeli intelligence officer, he was arrested in the US in 1989 for violating the law by trying to sell three C-130 Hercules transport aircraft to Iran, but was later acquitted. After that, he worked as a PR agent for Zimbabwe’s strongman Robert Mugabe and Zimbabwe-born drug trafficker Paul Le Roux (who after his arrest in the US agreed to cooperate with its Drug Enforcement Administration), and Sudanese warlord General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, whose forces committed crimes against humanity in Darfur in 2014-15.
Ben-Menashe’s involvement in Myanmar goes back to the 1990s when he, according to internal documents in my possession, tried to sell sophisticated military equipment to the Tatmadaw, including missiles and attack helicopters. Nothing came of those attempts, but his standing with the Tatmadaw doesn’t seem to have been shaken by those shenanigans. Even so, his $2-million deal with the SAC appears to have come to nothing. In mid-July, Ben-Menashe announced that he had ceased working with the generals because sanctions prevented him from being paid.
The track records of previously employed PR firms also leave little hope for Myanmar’s generals. Few, if any, of those efforts to gloss over Tatmadaw atrocities had any influence on US and other Western opinions. The first was also the worst of several ill-fated attempts at improving the image of the Tatmadaw. It involved Edward von Kloberg, whom many described as “a lobbyist from hell”. Prior to representing the Myanmar Embassy in Washington after the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, he had defended Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Liberian coup maker Samuel Doe, Romania’s tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu and Zaire’s dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Alexander Cockburn and Ken Silverstein write in their book Washington Babylon about von Kloberg that “even within the amoral world of Washington lobbying, [he] stands out for handling clients that no one else would touch.” Sick and broke, von Kloberg committed suicide in 2005 by jumping from the walls of the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome.
Next in line was Jefferson Waterman International, then headed by Ann Wrobleski, who had served as assistant secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan in 1986 and was instrumental in denying Myanmar US anti-narcotics aid following the 1988 massacres. At that time, she said Myanmar was unlikely to make progress in fighting narcotics “until a government enjoying greater credibility and support among the Burmese people than the current military regime [is] seated in Rangoon.” As a PR agent for the generals, Wrobleski advertised Myanmar as a “beautiful and exotic country” and repeated the generals’ claim that the US had engaged in terrorism by supporting pro-democracy groups outside the country. That did not help the military dictatorship burnish its reputation in the US or elsewhere; nor did endeavors by the Atlantic Group, a lobbying group that was working more directly to help overturn US sanctions, or the DCI Group, which was hired for the same purpose.
The sad state of the media in Myanmar under military rule does not do justice to the country’s rich literary and intellectual traditions. Prior to the 1962 military takeover, the country had more than 30 daily newspapers. Apart from the leading ones in Burmese and English, there were also five in Chinese, two in Hindi, and one each in Urdu, Tamil, Telugu and Gujarati, apart from magazines and journals in Shan, Kachin, Karen and other ethnic minority languages. The vitality of Myanmar’s press was effectively undermined at the beginning of 1964 when the Law to Protect National Solidarity was promulgated. All privately owned newspapers were to be banned and all their property and assets confiscated. Printing, the military stated, had to be done only in English or Burmese. Apart from The Working People’s Daily and the Loktha Pyithu Nezin, there were three papers—the Guardian, Kyemon and Botahtaung—that had been nationalized by the then junta, Ne Win’s Revolutionary Council, and ceased being independent publications.
Nothing changed until the August-September 1988 uprising, when the traditional creativity of the Myanmar psyche flourished again after 26 years of silence. New privately produced publications appeared, some daily, some intermittent, with fanciful names such as The Light of Dawn, The Liberation Daily, Scoop, Victory and The Newsletter. But that brief period of freedom ended when the military stepped in on Sept. 18 to reassert power and announced the formation of the SLORC. People were gunned down in the streets of Yangon and elsewhere, thousands were arrested and former activists fled to Thailand and India, where new publications—first printed and later online—began to appear. One of them was The Irrawaddy, which first appeared as a newsletter in Bangkok in 1990, published by exiles from Myanmar.
It was not until after the 2010 election and the appointment the following year of a quasi-civilian government headed by Thein Sein, a former general, that Myanmar experienced another rebirth of its proud media traditions. But that too has now come to an end, as the military is tightening its grip on the nation. Journalists especially have become targets of the SAC’s efforts to try to crush all opposition to its self-imposed rule. Many journalists, poets and other writers are languishing in jails all over the country. Many more are in hiding while a fortunate few have managed to flee to other countries. The Committee to Protect Journalists stated in a July report that Myanmar has become “one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists.”
At the same, two things are evident: Myanmar’s generals don’t realize they have no credibility, and they have not learned from the past. They are yet again printing crude propaganda and wasting huge amounts of money on feeble and fruitless attempts at defending their violent repression of a population that does not want to live under yet another dictatorship. The independent press is back in exile, now using the internet to disseminate their work and, in that way, reaching many more people inside the country than the printed publications ever did after the 1988 crackdown, when there was no digital media.
It is anybody’s guess how long it may take before the exiled journalists can return to Myanmar and continue the work they were doing before the coup. But the formation of a “caretaker government” with Min Aung Hlaing as its prime minister and characters like Chit Naing (Psychology) in charge of publicity is a clear sign that the military is determined to exercise absolute power for many years to come. “Free and fair” polls in 2023 and then a transfer of power to a popularly elected government, as the Tatmadaw has promised? Only fools, and perhaps the military’s ASEAN allies, would believe that is a likely scenario. It is, to quote what the street vendors in Yangon said in the late 1980s, “All Lies!”
Bertil Lintner is a Swedish journalist, author and strategic consultant who has been writing about Asia for nearly four decades.
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