How Myanmar Junta Chief Uses Richardson’s Visit to Boost His Image

By The Irrawaddy 10 November 2021

After his visit to military-ruled Myanmar last week, ex-US diplomat Bill Richardson boasted that his trip had achieved its aims: the release from prison of a local ex-employee of his; increased access to humanitarian aid and vaccines for Myanmar; and resumption of Red Cross visits to the country’s prisons.

The former New Mexico governor described his trip to the country, with which he has had a long involvement dating back to 1994, as a humanitarian visit. Though his visit was made on a private basis, he was the first prominent US figure to meet Myanmar coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who is under US sanctions for masterminding the killing of more than 1,000 people who opposed his ousting of the country’s democratically elected government in February. Richardson has no love for Myanmar’s detained pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Nor does Min Aung Hlaing, who placed her under house arrest at the time of the coup. So the two men had that much in common when they met and talked for 90 minutes.

Talking to the Associated Press about his Myanmar trip, Richardson said he was satisfied with what he had accomplished.

So, it’s worth asking what Myanmar junta got out of Richardson’s visit, apart from humanitarian aid and vaccines, as he claimed.

In short: a significant propaganda boost.

The junta chief’s meeting with Richardson was psychologically important, allowing the general to deceive his military officers and soldiers into believing that he was paid a visit by “a former diplomat” from the US—the arch critic of his regime.

Perfect timing

According to sources, it took two months to plan the trip with the assistance of some former military intelligence officers who knew Richardson. However, it should be noted that the timing of the visit was most convenient for the regime, coming just as Min Aung Hlaing was licking his wounds after being shunned at a regional summit he had been desperate to attend. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, refused his presence at the meeting over his failure to honor commitments to take steps to ease the political crisis sparked by his coup. As he had counted on the support of his regional neighbors, the group’s exclusion of him was a big blow for Min Aung Hlaing.

On Nov. 2, just five days after the ASEAN summit’s conclusion, Richardson was ushered into the Credentials Hall of the office of the regime’s governing body, the State Administration Council, in Naypyitaw to be received by Min Aung Hlaing. Prior to the coup, the hall, dominated by a gilded throne—a symbol of Myanmar’s sovereignty—at the Presidential Residence was where the country’s presidents welcomed international dignitaries, from US President Barack Obama to Chinese leader Xi Jinping to newly arrived diplomats to the country. Richardson may be the first non-state figure to be received in the room.

Myanmar coup leader Min Aung Hlaing receives Bill Richardson at the Credentials Hall in Naypyitaw on Nov. 2. / Myawady

Next day, Richardson must have been thrilled to see a picture of their meeting splashed over the front page of the junta’s mouthpiece newspaper with the headline: “State Administration Council Chairman Prime Minister Senior General Min Aung Hlaing receives former governor of New Mexico State of USA.”

However, the regime’s special treatment of Richardson had an ulterior motive.

Some retired Myanmar military officers who worked for the previous regime said the photo of the ex-diplomat paying a courtesy call to Min Aung Hlaing in the grand hall—with Richardson in a chair and Min Aung Hlaing perched on an ornate, gilded sofa in front of the throne—evoked a feeling of an ancient Myanmar king receiving a foreign visitors. Richardson, meanwhile, appears subdued in the photo.

At the same time, the military’s propaganda mill swung into high gear. The Irrawaddy was told that military commanders have been ordered to share the picture on their social media accounts. They have told their subordinates and their family members to do the same, to create the impression, especially in military circles, that despite international criticism and exclusion by ASEAN, the regime still has friends. This time, American!

Information bubble

Some may find it hard to believe that it could be so easy for the regime to delude its people, especially in the mobile internet age.

Since the coup, access to news from independent media has been largely banned for officers, soldiers and their families living inside army quarters. Their Facebook accounts are monitored to “prevent disintegration of the unity of the Tatmadaw” (Myanmar’s military). They are only allowed to read the regime’s papers and watch the military’s Myawady Channel; all other information available online from independent local news outlets is dismissed as fake news from “state-destroying media”. Amid this blanket information blackout, the regime can filter the information they want to feed to the troops. So, when the junta published the picture of Richardson meeting with Min Aung Hlaing in the Credentials Hall, the majority of people in the military, who have little familiarity with Richardson, would simply think that their boss had a VIP visitor from the US, a country that has long supported Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement and rarely had warm relations with the Tatmadaw.

The former governor told the AP that he was realistic enough to realize that some might try to exploit his presence. Of course, Min Aung Hlaing used him not only for propaganda, but also to raise the spirit of his troops, who have been demoralized by the nationwide popular hatred directed at them for their deadly crackdowns on anti-coup protesters. To add to their dismay, the regime’s soldiers are growing increasingly fatigued and insecure due to the growing and ever more deadly civilian armed resistance against them. To keep his boys’ spirits high, Min Aung Hlaing needed to show them he has friends and is not isolated, especially after ASEAN’s snub. Richardson, as an American, turned out to be the perfect choice.

Bill Richardson and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon in 2012. / The Richardson Center

Unsurprisingly, the ex-US diplomat’s meeting with the Myanmar coup leader has drawn a barrage of criticism, especially from human rights campaigners who said Richardson had given the junta an air of legitimacy—a claim he rejected. However, when offering his impressions of Min Aung Hlaing, the ex-diplomat sounded like a spin doctor, describing the blood-soaked dictator as “cordial” and “open to more contact,” likely paving the way for others who are similarly clueless about Myanmar’s misery under Min Aung Hlaing and who blindly think that isolating the regime is not the answer to the Myanmar crisis.

Talking up his achievements during the trip as “mild progress”, Richardson said he was optimistic and hopeful that it might lead to a better situation. He has also, no doubt, earned the gratitude of Min Aung Hlaing, for arriving in a time of need and turning out to be quite useful—at least when it comes to deceiving his boys in uniform into believing that their chief is not a lonely and isolated figure.

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