Analysis

Who is Myanmar Regime Apologist Ko Ko Hlaing?

By The Irrawaddy 28 April 2022

Few people in the West or even in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) know who is who when it comes to the ministers of Myanmar’s junta. But one minister they should know is U Ko Ko Hlaing, as he is the military regime’s Minister for International Cooperation and the junta’s point man for dealing with the international community.

U Ko Ko Hlaing is also the chair of the Working Committee on Supervision of United Nations (UN) Agencies and International Non-Governmental Organizations in Myanmar. In addition, he is the head of the Task Force on Humanitarian Assistance, meaning that the 65-year-old oversees international aid efforts in Myanmar. His recent visitors include David Carden, the deputy humanitarian coordinator for the UN in Myanmar. If those jobs were not enough, in February the former Lieutenant Colonel also led Myanmar’s defense at the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands against allegations of genocide committed by the Myanmar military.

Furthermore, he was among the few people ASEAN’s Special Envoy for Myanmar, Prak Sokhonn, met when he was in Myanmar last month. The envoy discussed humanitarian assistance issues with U Ko Ko Hlaing. He impressed the special envoy’s delegation with his friendliness and his 75-minute long discussion with the envoy was praised for being fruitful.

But what foreign visitors don’t know is that U Ko Ko Hlaing has been a staunch apologist for not only this military dictatorship but the previous one as well. He is infamous among the Myanmar people, many of whom refer to him scornfully as “Frog and Fish Catcher Ko Ko Hlaing” or “Candle Ko Ko Hlaing”. Looking back at his career, it is easy to understand why that is.

Myanmar regime Minister for International Cooperation U Ko Ko Hlaing meets with David Carden, Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator of the United Nations in Myanmar. /MOFA-Myanmar

Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has appointed a number of ministers and advisors who previously served in U Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government. U Ko Ko Hlaing, who served as the chief political advisor to U Thein Sein, is one of them.

He is also a confidant of former dictator Senior General Than Shwe. U Ko Ko Hlaing graduated from the 18th intake of the Defense Services Academy, and he and two of his classmates are reportedly regular visitors to Than Shwe’s residence in the Myanmar capital Naypyitaw.

One of those classmates is U Than Htay, the current chair of the military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party. The other is retired Lieutenant General Wai Lwin, who served as defense minister in U Thein Sein’s administration and organized pro-military rallies in Yangon ahead of Min Aung Hlaing’s February 1, 2021 coup.

U Ko Ko Hlaing did not hold high military or civil positions in Than Shwe’s regime, unlike his two classmates, but he played an important part in the regime’s propaganda efforts as a writer and researcher. In 2004, he resigned as a Lieutenant Colonel from the research department of the defense ministry and transferred to the Information Ministry.

Under Information Minister U Kyaw Hsan in the regime’s State Peace and Development Council government, he served as an advisor to the information ministry, often publishing pro-military books as well as newspaper articles.

U Ko Ko Hlaing

One of his most notorious articles concerned Cyclone Nargis, which in May 2008 swept through Ayeyarwady Region and southern Myanmar, killing over 138,000 people and destroying and damaging some 750,000 buildings. In the immediate aftermath of the worst recorded natural disaster in Myanmar’s history U Ko Ko Hlaing, writing under the pseudonym ‘Hlaing Aung’, wrote that the Shwedagon Pagoda – Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist site – could now be seen clearly from a distance and worshipped with ease, thanks to Nargis having blown down so many trees in Yangon.

At the time, U Ko Ko Hlaing was living near Shwedagon Pagoda in Bahan Township. But while he was enjoying the view of the Shwedagon from his home, hundreds of thousands of residents in the hard-hit Ayeyarwady Region were left homeless by Nargis and were struggling without food and shelter amid the rotting corpses of humans and animals.

To make matters worse, U Ko Ko Hlaing argued in his article that as the Ayeyarwady Region is rich in fertile soil and water resources, its shattered residents could catch frogs and fish to eat along with the vegetables that grow in the region. Defending the xenophobic refusal of Than Shwe’s regime to allow international aid into Myanmar, U Ko Ko Hlaing said that the meals he suggested were tasty and nutritious and more than enough for Nargis refugees to survive on, so they had no need for chocolate bars donated by the international community.

The article was published in the regime-run English-language newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, and attracted hordes of disparaging remarks from both local and international readers.

Despite that, U Ko Ko Hlaing continued to be favored by the generals and, in 2011, was appointed as chief political advisor to then President U Thein Sein. Later, his wife Daw Thida Tin transferred from the education ministry to the information ministry. She is currently serving as Deputy Director-General of the Information and Public Relations Department.

From being a propagandist who dared not use his real name and was told what to write by the military regime, U Ko Ko Hlaing became an important figure as a presidential advisor. But his old habit of defending the boss he served was far from over.

When Myanmar experienced long and frequent power cuts in 2014, U Ko Ko Hlaing again aroused controversy by saying: “I want to say with goodwill. Why don’t you switch off lights and light candles at your homes? Everything will be fine then.”

After U Thein Sein’s government lost the 2015 general election to the National League for Democracy (NLD), U Ko Ko Hlaing left Naypyitaw to serve as an advisor to the Myanmar Study Department of Yunnan University in Kunming, China. From there, he criticized the NLD government’s handling of Chinese investments, and was personally engaged in promoting the interests of Chinese companies in Myanmar.

He returned to Naypyitaw when Min Aung Hlaing appointed him as Minister for International Cooperation Minister. U Ko Ko Hlaing is just a year older than the coup leader, who graduated from the Defense Services Academy in 1977, a year after U Ko Ko Hlaing became a commissioned officer.

A caricature of U Ko Ko Hlaing by Myanmar’s late revolutionary cartoonist Harn Lay, after people scornfully call him “Frog and Fish Catcher Ko Ko Hlaing” or “Candle Ko Ko Hlaing”.

U Ko Ko Hlaing has continued his propaganda efforts for his new boss, doing his best to cover up the regime’s human rights violations. After many people died in July and August last year due to the regime’s weak handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, he wrote a number of articles blaming striking health workers and western countries for failing to provide vaccines.

“I don’t want to complain, but I have to. Western countries that have long said that Myanmar is on the verge of collapse due to COVID-19 and is in urgent need of international assistance have not yet provided a single dose of COVID-19 vaccines. The US$350 million lent by the International Monetary Fund to remedy the COVID-hit economy was part of the US$1 billion frozen by Uncle Sam. Nearly US$300 million in loans long promised by the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank for the health of the people and agriculture has been stalled in the name of sanctions,” he wrote in junta-controlled newspapers.

Earlier this year in February, in another sign of the regime’s faith in him, U Ko Ko Hlaing was chosen to lead Myanmar’s defense of the Myanmar military at the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands against genocide allegations.

In short, if you mention international cooperation minister U Ko Ko Hlaing to any ordinary Myanmar people you meet, you will see puzzlement on their faces as they have no idea who he is. But if you try “Frog and Fish Catcher Ko Ko Hlaing” or “Candle Ko Ko Hlaing”, they will reply: “Yes, the regime’s stooge”.

The international community needs to be mindful, too, that the façade of ‘friendly’ minister U Ko Ko Hlaing hides a long-time apologist for military dictatorships.

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