Guest Column

TIME Magazine’s Deplorable Misjudgment on Myanmar’s Min Aung Hlaing

By Sawanwongse Yawnghwe 18 April 2023

It is outrageous that Myanmar junta leader Min Aung Hlaing has been included in the so-called “TIME100,” TIME Magazine’s determination of “The Most Influential People of 2023,” published in April.

What definition of “influence” possessed TIME’s editors to delegate this distinction to a mass murdering war criminal? How does TIME justify situating the orchestrator of an illegitimate coup attempt in a section reserved for “leaders”? One cringes while speculating how US President Joe Biden or Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska might feel about receiving this alleged “honor” alongside such a shameless figure with no internationally or domestically respected claim to power.

Min Aung Hlaing is the self-proclaimed head of Myanmar’s State Administration Council (SAC), a junta formed after his military staged a coup d’etat on Feb. 1, 2021, overturning the results of the November 2020 general election. Since then, his troops are confirmed to have killed more than 3,200 civilians; those monitoring the situation believe the real toll is likely much higher. Some 1.7 million people are internally displaced. An estimated 60,000 houses have been destroyed. The use of indiscriminate air strikes, artillery and arson attacks and the use of heavy firepower and land mines have markedly increased—regularly and systematically targeting civilians.

Min Aung Hlaing’s junta has imprisoned nearly 17,500 people, including elected members of parliament, schoolteachers, civil servants, and—perhaps of interest to TIME—dozens of journalists. Thousands more activists have fled the country and are in exile or have been forced into hiding.

That TIME would release this list just days after Min Aung Hlaing’s military massacred more than 170 men, women and children in the village of Pa Zi Gyi, in Sagaing Region’s Kanbalu Township, is a profound insult to the people of Myanmar. On the morning of April 11, around 200 people came to attend a ceremony to mark the opening of a local office of the National Unity Government, which opposes the junta. A fighter jet dropped two bombs on those at the event, and a helicopter soon followed, strafing the area. A spokesperson for Min Aung Hlaing’s SAC admitted to perpetrating the attack.

It is unforgiveable that in the aftermath of this heinous act—which history will undoubtedly deem one of the Myanmar military’s many war crimes—TIME gave Min Aung Hlaing the opportunity to celebrate his recognition by the publication as an “influential” leader.

Before the brutality seen since the coup, Min Aung Hlaing—in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the military for a decade—was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people throughout Myanmar, particularly those from ethnic nationalities, in offensives to control land and resources and to attempt to subjugate these populations. They therefore know well the depths of his and his soldiers’ depravity.

TIME’s recent recognition of Min Aung Hlaing is another reminder of the failure of international bodies, governments, and officials to exert meaningful influence in Myanmar. The United Nations and its leadership, as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, have utterly failed to halt or slow the military’s violence. A number of international agencies operating in Myanmar are known to be working with the SAC regime—a strategy that will arguably normalize relations with military structures even as they continue to deprive people of their basic rights and needs. It is feared that foreign countries, particularly those in the West, are simply waiting for a clear “winner” in this struggle to emerge so that they can deploy investors to exploit Myanmar’s people and resources for profit.

And yet, even as the people of Myanmar are ignored by the international community, they continue to fiercely resist Min Aung Hlaing and his military in nearly every part of the country. If TIME’s aim was to draw attention to the fight for human rights and against dictatorship in Myanmar, perhaps these many brave individuals should have been featured on the magazine’s list of influential persons instead of the man responsible for their repression.

Given that TIME’s coverage of events in Myanmar has for years been lukewarm at best, there is not much surprise that the publication’s editors would engage in such a faux pas. TIME’s 2013 cover story on “The Face of Buddhist Terror” helped to elevate a garden variety thug-monk, U Wirathu, to international prominence and shore up domestic support for a campaign of hate directed against Muslim minorities, particularly the ethnic Rohingya. Then, as now, TIME’s sensational intervention into Myanmar’s affairs is distorting domestic reality and misinforming the public on a global scale.

TIME must immediately remove Min Aung Hlaing from this shameful list; even the negative attention is too much for this war criminal. I call on the people of Myanmar to boycott TIME until a retraction and a full apology is published.

Sawangwongse Yawnghwe is an exiled Shan artist who lives and works in the Netherlands.