Analysis

Where Is Spokesman U Zaw Htay?

By The Irrawaddy 8 February 2021

At his last press briefing in Naypyitaw on Jan. 8, U Zaw Htay, spokesman for Myanmar’s soon-to-be-toppled government, denied that President U Win Myint or State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had done anything that breached the Constitution or the Union Election Commission (UEC)’s rules while campaigning ahead of the Nov. 8 general election. He was responding to a legal challenge mounted against the two state leaders by two of the losing, military-aligned parties in the election.

“No legal violation was made by the President or State Counselor,” U Zaw Htay thundered.

The President’s Office spokesperson dismissed the legal challenge against the state leaders as the act of a group of people who couldn’t accept their election loss.

Following their humiliating defeat to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) on Nov. 8, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the Democratic Party of National Politics (DNP) cried foul, claiming the election was “unfair” and “marred by mass fraud”, despite international and domestic election observers reporting no major irregularities.

The USDP won just 71 seats (down from 117 in 2015), or 6.4 percent out of 1,117 contested seats in the Union, state and regional legislatures. The DNP won none. The NLD won a supermajority with 920 seats (82.3 percent).

“To be frank, these are the acts of those who can’t accept defeat. The public, who cast votes, know best about the election, and whom they voted for and supported,” U Zaw Htay said.

“I would say those who are making false accusations are committing political suicide,” he added.

Political suicide? It was strong language, and it drew praise from members and supporters of the NLD government—but not from the military and its proxy party, the USDP.

Since the military seized control of the state on Monday, however, the spokesman has been out of view. According to informed sources, his last known contact with members of the media was several days earlier, on Jan. 28, via the Signal messaging platform. He and other senior officials were in a meeting with a group of military generals; they were asking the government to suspend the upcoming Parliament session, conduct a vote recount and dissolve the UEC.

From the meeting, he sent a series of worrying texts to a media contact:

“Dealing now!”

“But negative”

“Can’t avoid confrontation”

He was describing in real time the breakdown of negotiations between the government and the military. No one in the media has been able to reach him since, and his phone is off, though some reports have emerged that he is now working with the military government in some capacity.

U Zaw Htay has always been a controversial figure. Earlier in his career, he served as spokesperson for the government of then-President U Thein Sein, and has always been seen as one of the former head of state’s biggest champions.

A graduate of the 37th intake of the Defense Services Academy, U Zaw Htay served in the army and went on to join the military regime then known as the State Peace and Development Council. (Current military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun is a fellow graduate of DSA 37 and the two are known to have been friends.)

The generals quickly saw that they had a rare gem in the young officer, who was known to be a bookworm and a computer geek. He subsequently worked in the office of Prime Minister General Soe Win, who was accused of overseeing a bloody attack on opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her followers in May 2003.

When Gen. Soe Win died in 2007 at the age of 59, U Zaw Htay was professionally adrift for a period. He retired from the military with the rank of major and joined the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), wearing the regime-sponsored civic organization’s uniform—a white shirt and traditional Burmese jacket with green longyi.

In July 2010, the association transformed into a political party led by U Thein Sein, who was then the regime’s prime minister. The regime held an election in the same year and U Thein Sein became president early in 2011, but the West and neighboring governments denounced the vote as a sham.

Then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the election was deeply flawed and a sign of “heartbreaking” repressive conditions in Myanmar. But before long, as the new government under President U Thein Sein began to open up the country, the US and other Western governments hailed the “political reform” in Myanmar and foreign leaders were soon jetting in to the country. Clinton was the first to fly in to meet civilian leaders who a year earlier were still in uniform and ruling the country in jackboots.

U Zaw Htay became the director of the President’s Office under U Thein Sein. In November 2011, writing in The Washington Post, he called on the US and other nations “to help facilitate Myanmar’s connection to the outside world at this critical juncture.” Taking credit on behalf of the administration for the surprise suspension of the controversial China-funded Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State, he wrote: “My president’s cancellation of the Beijing-backed Myitsone Dam signaled to the world what he stands for. If the United States neglects this opportunity, Washington will part ways with the new order in the Indochina region.”

Also known by his pen name Hmuu Zaw, the spokesman became renowned for his active presence on social media. He used his Facebook account to spar with NLD supporters and occasionally contributed articles to local media outlets bolstering the reputation of his boss and the Myanmar military.

When communal strife broke out between ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar in 2012, U Zaw Htay uploaded pictures—he would later delete them—that fueled tension between the two communities. His revulsion for what he saw as “Bengali” interlopers was tangible in the posts. Myanmar doesn’t recognize the Rohingya as one of its official ethnic minorities, and many people view them as illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh. The stance confirmed him as a nationalist, in line with the Myanmar military’s default position.

On Jan. 30, 2016, when U Thein Sein made his final trip to the Irrawaddy Delta as head of state, U Zaw Htay posted photos with a caption that read, “The president, who has a clean record in his life, has left a good record during his term, as well.”

The comments seemed to go beyond what was required of his position, and some critics continued to accuse him of fomenting civil unrest with his nationalist rhetoric.

When the NLD government came to power, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi picked U Zaw Htay to be its spokesman. The decision surprised and upset many, including top NLD leaders who were distrustful of U Zaw Htay because of his service in the former government, as well as his history of making inflammatory remarks.

The staunch supporter of U Thein Sein let it be known to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi that he wanted to remain in his position and serve the incoming NLD government. That initially aroused suspicion—some NLD members accused him of being planted in the new government by the old administration—but no one dared question the State Counselor’s decision.

Under the NLD government U Zaw Htay soon became even more prominent and powerful, while remaining cordial with media and friends. He was told, however, to be more disciplined in his social media postings under the NLD.

He soon received the blessing of “the Lady” and became director general of the State Counselor’s Office.

Outspoken, witty and intelligent, he knew how to handle and tame the media, while also maintaining friendly relations with them. His enemies and skeptics in the NLD and beyond accepted him. Given the high-level access he had to the State Counselor and ministers in the ousted government, he is a highly valuable source of information to the former government’s adversaries. As early as November last year, after the NLD’s decisive landslide victory, he sent a note to a friend in the media saying he was worried about a coup.

Ironically, the former army officer spent his most recent press conferences defending the NLD government from criticism leveled by the military and USDP over its policies and the handling of the election. In the last days before he dropped out of sight he won the admiration of NLD members and the public, if not from the military and his former friend, Maj-Gen. Zaw Min Tun.

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