Myanmar Now Articles Nominated by SOPA

Paid to Pray? USDP Officials Arrange ‘Rent-A-Crowds’ For Pro-Wirathu Protests

Attendees at protests in support of the fugitive monk were paid and bused in, a source says, with many unaware who they were marching and praying for.

A crowd marches from Swal Daw pagoda in Mayangone township to Kabar Aye pagoda on 11 June (Photo- Sai Zaw/ Myanmar Now)

Local officials from the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) helped organise rent-a-crowds for a series of rallies in Yangon to support the fugitive monk Wirathu, a Myanmar Now investigation has found. 

Attendees at demonstrations and public prayers were bused in from Yangon’s outskirts with offers of free trips to Shwedagon pagoda and in some cases paid cash to attend, participants and a source close to the USDP said. 

In many cases the USDP officials did not tell attendees they would be marching in support of the notorious monk, who is wanted by police on charges of sedition.

The USDP has denied the allegations, saying it was not the party’s business if some of its members attended the rallies of their own accord. 

Wirathu has evaded arrest since May 28, when a warrant was issued in relation to a speech he made attacking the government. In response his supporters organised a series of rallies and prayers where they chanted slogans including “Free Sayadaw U Wirathu from worry”. 

The organisers’ alleged use of incentives and misleading claims to entice people to join the rallies is a sign of waning popular support for Wirathu, whose political influence declined markedly after the National League for Democracy, a party he staunchly opposes, came to power in 2016. 

Maung Min Min, 15, said men who claimed to be USDP officials came to his village of West Oboe in Twante township on June 11 and asked him and a friend if they would like to join a free pilgrimage tour to Shwedagon pagoda.  

Min Min (middle, yellow shirt) said a senior USDP member in his village sent him to the prayers held for Wirathu in Mayangone Township. (Photo- Sai Zaw/Myanmar Now)

They never got to visit Shwedagon, instead organisers took the pair, along with eight others from their village, to a gathering of around 1,000 people near the Tooth Relic pagoda in Mayangone township, he told Myanmar Now. 

After they arrived they were made to stand along lines on the floor and repeat prayers, he said. “They called out at us using this thing that made sound,” he added, referring to a megaphone. “They brought us food.” 

He and his friend were never told they were attending a gathering in support of Wirathu.

Ten other participants who spoke to Myanmar Now during the gathering indicated they did not know who the prayers were for. 

“They said a monk was arrested and they wanted to hold a prayer for him,” said 65-year-old Daw Nyein, also from Twante, adding that she was told she would be able to visit a pagoda. 

“I don’t know which monk. But praying is good in Buddhism,” she added. 

Men who appeared to be organisers at the rallies repeatedly tried to prevent Myanmar Now from interviewing the demonstrators. 

Aung Myat Tun, the USDP chairman in West Oboe village, said he helped gather people to join the prayers but did not do so under any directions from his party. He spread the word to villagers because a man driving a truck said he would take them on a free pilgrimage tour. 

When Myanmar Now asked for the driver’s contact details he said he couldn’t provide them because his phone was broken. 

Twante township’s USDP chairman Dr Thein Zaw Myint said he did not direct anyone at the village level to gather people for the rallies. 

A source close to the USDP in Hlaing Tharyar told Myanmar Now a group of around 40 men from a squatter community in the township were each paid 10,000 kyat to attend a rally on June 10, then given 3,000 a day to attend rallies after that, as well as compensation for travel and food expenses. 

USDP spokesperson Thein Tun Oo told Myanmar Now that none of its members received money from the party to attend the prayers. The decision to attend was a personal decision, the spokesperson added, and the USDP would not interfere unless members violated party rules. 

“They joined the rally of their own free will and personal judgement,” he said.

After a rally on June 12 at Shwedagon pagoda, Myanmar Now reporters saw around 30 attendees board three small trucks and then followed them. One truck ended up at the USDP office in Hlaing Tharyar township.

The same truck also carried Wirathu supporters to another rally at Botahtaung Pagoda in downtown Yangon the following day, June 13.

Attendees at prayers held on Shwedagon’s platform on 12 June. The light truck in the picture travelled to the USDP office in Hlaing Tharyar Township after the prayers. (Photo- Sai Zaw/ Myanmar Now)

One passenger on the truck was Myo San Win, who according to posts on the official USDP Facebook page is one of the party’s township executive members.   

When Myanmar Now called Myo San Win’s cellphone, a man who declined to give his name asked “Am I going to face charges?” before hanging up. 

Right- Hlaing Tharyar Township’s USDP executive Myo San Win at a USDP event (Photo- Sai Zaw/ Myanmar Now), Left- Myo San Win on his return trip from a rally at Shwedagon on 12 June (Photo- Sai Zaw/ Myanmar Now)

During one rally near Shwedagon pagoda a Myanmar Now reporter posing as a curious bystander asked a participant how one could go about joining future demonstrations. A middle-aged man responded: “Where do you live? Isn’t there a USDP office in your ward?”

Then he called out to a man in a white shirt with a ponytail, who he gave the nickname Ko San Shay, or Ko Long Hair. Myanmar Now later identified the man with the ponytail as Kyaw Kyaw, an active organiser for the USDP in South Dagon township.

He appears in several photos dressed bearing the party’s logo on the Facebook page of the USDP South Dagon branch.

Right- A photograph of USDP (South Dagon) township organizer Kyaw Kyaw posted on Facebook, Left- Kyaw Kyaw at a prayer ceremony for Wirathu on 13 June (Photo- Sai Zaw/ Myanmar Now)

Reached by phone, Kyaw Kyaw said attending the Wirathu rally was his own decision. “Party is party. Nationalism is nationalism. We are protecting Buddhism,” he added. 

At the rally, the middle-aged man gestured at Myanmar Now’s reporter and told Kyaw Kyaw, “this girl wants to join us.” Kyaw Kyaw replied: “Can we trust her?” 

(Editing by Nyunt Win and Joshua Carroll, reporting by Htun Khaing, Sai Zaw, Phyo Thiha Cho, Chan Thar, Khin Moh Moh Lwin, Aung Nyein Chan, Kayzon Nwe, and Mung San Aung)

Thousands of gold miners once played soccer, drank at bars and cared for the stray dogs in Moehti Moemi, a smattering of buildings and dirt roads carved into the base of a hill range in central Myanmar’s Mandalay region.

Now the 6,000-acre mining town is almost empty. Hastily abandoned trucks and diggers dot the roadsides, karaoke bars have been shuttered, and the strays have been left to fend for themselves. 

“The dogs have started eating each other because there’s no one to feed them,” said a driver who escorted Myanmar Now during a recent visit and requested anonymity. 

The executives at the company overseeing operations left the town in a hurry in mid-2018. But not because the gold ran out; the ground beneath is still believed to be brimming with the precious metal. 

They fled to avoid arrest following a protracted row with the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, which accused them of failing to hand over about $80 million worth of gold they owed to the state. 

For several months last year the National Prosperity Gold Production Group (NPGPG) defied a government order to cease operations, hanging banners at the town’s entrance declaring those trying to shut them down “our enemies”.

They lost the standoff. Top executives at the company have been arrested or gone into hiding. The company’s chairman, Soe Htun Shein, was declared a fugitive in May after being charged in August last year with mining without a permit. Seven others from NPGPG have evaded arrest, though two of those have sent a bundle of evidence to the government that they say proves they are innocent. 

Managing director Htun Aung Soe, meanwhile, has been arrested on suspicion of falsely accusing officials of corruption during the row. 

And corruption allegations have engulfed a senior official from a government-owned company. Than Daing, managing director of the No. 2 Mining Enterprise, faces 10 years in prison after being accused of abusing his authority and misusing public resources. 

The acrimony between NPGPG and the government is about more than just money. Soe Htun Shein is an ultranationalist Buddhist who views Aung San Suu Kyi and her cabinet as ideological enemies. 

While refusing to hand over gold to her government, he has used some of the riches his company mined from beneath Moehti Moemi to fund the activities of the anti-Muslim monk Wirathu. That includes a visit in 2017 to Rakhine state, where a vicious military crackdown the same year sent more than 730,000 Rohingya fleeing across the border to Bangladesh.

‘If we can pay, so can they’ 

Soe Htun Shein and his colleagues enjoyed a good relationship with the previous military-backed government, which repeatedly rewrote their contract on more favourable terms when they said they were unable to hand over the agreed amount of gold.

But after the NLD came to power in 2016, the company found officials unsympathetic when they failed to pay, and eventually had their license revoked in 2018. 

Soe Htun Shein has argued that his company was unable to hand over the agreed amount of gold because the deposits at Moehti Moemi weren’t as rich as first thought when operations began in 2011. 

But the company’s contract with the government states the agreed sum of gold “must be paid to the country under any circumstances.” And a parliamentary report last year disputed NPGPG’s claim about the quality of the deposits, noting that a group of dozens of smaller subcontractors at the mine had already handed over 607 viss, or just under one metric ton, of gold to NPGPG.

And yet, the report noted, NPGPG had given the government just over half that amount, 338 viss, in the same period since 2011.

“If even we can pay 607 viss, why can’t NPGPG?” said one mine owner who joined Myanmar Now on the trip to the abandoned site. 

Thura Zaw, NPGPG’s director, denied the companies’ claim and sued them for defamation, saying that they never handed the gold over to NPGPG. The case is ongoing. 

Average monthly production at Moehti Moemi dropped significantly when the NLD government came to power, figures from the company’s 2017 annual report show. 

Since May 2015, the site averaged well over 5,000 ticals, or 82kg, of refined gold per month. Then in April 2016, the party’s first full month in office, production dropped to just under 2,200 ticals and averaged less than 3,000 for the next year.

Links to hardliners 

Soe Htun Shein is a loyal supporter of Buddhist nationalist causes and the anti-Muslim monks behind them. In 2015 he donated just over 1.6 kilograms of gold, worth about $70,000, to Ma Ba Tha, the now disbanded hardline group of which Wirathu was a key member. 

The same year he told the BBC’s Burmese service that only someone who does not believe in Buddhism would accuse the group of being extremists. 

NPGPG was also the main financial sponsor for the construction of a private high school in Yangon run by Ma Ba Tha leaders. 

And Soe Htun Shein paid for Wirathu to travel to Maungdaw in Rakhine state in May 2017, months before a military-led offensive against the Rohingya that has led to accusations of genocide from UN experts.

Both the NLD-led government and the military vehemently deny the accusation, and say the military was conducting legitimate counter-insurgency operations in response to what they described as terrorist attacks by Rohingya militants.

When Ma Ba Tha was disbanded with an order from the State Sangha in 2017, Soe Htun Shein helped form the Dhamma Vamsanurakkhita Association. The association’s purpose was to support a rebranded version of Ma Ba Tha called the Buddha Dhamma Charity Foundation.

He became the association’s secretary and joined an unsuccessful effort to form a new nationlist political party that was meant to help the Ma Ba Tha movement branch out into electoral politics. The association’s president, Maung Thwe Chun, announced a plan to found the 135 Myochit Unity Party during a meeting in 2017. 

The election commission rejected the party’s attempt to register in November the same year, saying that the application did not “meet the requirements stipulated in political party registration law.”

Late last year Maung Thwe Chun was sentenced to two years in prison for defamation after he expressed anger at the fact that Vice President Henry Van Thio was a Christian. 

“And that Christian is supported by Muslim kalars,” he said during a speech in 2018 at a monk’s birthday celebration, using a racial slur for people of South Asian descent. 

‘They have to pretend to arrest you’

Two of those accused of breaking the law at NPGPG have written to the government to maintain that they are innocent.

In January, Nyi Nyi Lwin, the general manager of the gold production department at NPGPG, received a phone call. On the other end of the line was Naing Lin, a top executive at the company. 

“Ko Nyi, please leave the house for two days, today and tomorrow. The police said they have to pretend to come and arrest you,” Naing Lin told him, according to a recording of the call heard by Myanmar Now. 

Nyi Nyi Lwin, a 46-year-old former army captain, had been named on a list of NPGPG staff deemed responsible for mining without a permit, meaning he faces 10 years’ imprisonment. 

But Nyi Nyi Lwin, who has gone into hiding, maintains he is innocent, and that it is the executives above him who were responsible for going ahead with production after the company’s license was revoked. 

He recorded the January phone call as part of an effort to gather evidence to defend himself when he began to suspect illegal activity at the company. 

The phone call made him suspicious about the police’s role in the case, he added. “How does a civilian know the exact date, time and place of a police arrest? This is not honest,” he said. 

“I don’t know if it’s related to politics, but it’s true that the case is not normal,” he added. 

In the end, the police never showed up and he fled, he told Myanmar Now by telephone from an undisclosed location. 

He sent the audio of the call with Naing Lin, along with other recordings and documents, to the president’s office and other government departments in March 2019. The package included a letter in which Nyi Nyi Lwin argued his innocence. In it he wrote that he only continued production after the government order to stop because he was directed to by his seniors. 

When he got the order to continue from the executive director for mining, Cho Lwin Oo, he assumed it was because the company had resolved the dispute with the government, he said. 

The government responded to his letter by saying the matter would have to be resolved in court. 

Nyi Nyi Lwin submitted the letter along with another senior employee, Khin Zaw, who was also included on the list of people wanted by police. 

Khin Zaw, who was head of one of the company’s gold refinery factories, “could not even tighten or loosen a bolt without permission,” said Nyi Nyi Lwin. 

Myanmar Now was unable to reach Khin Zaw and Naing Lin for comment. 

“The case was carefully orchestrated, without including our testimony, by the company officers, hired lawyers, Myanmar police force and members of the court to put the blame on the lower level staff,” Khin Zaw and Nyi Nyi Lwin argued in their letter. 

Myo Myint Lwin, chief of police in Pyawbwe township, said it was untrue that police tipped anyone off about Nyi Nyi Lwin’s arrest, adding that investigators frequently searched for him.

Lucrative contracts 

Soe Htun Shein was already a millionaire before he got into gold mining, said Sithu Aung Myint, a journalist who has written about the tycoon. 

Under the military government, he was granted a monopoly on the trade of wholesale eel and crab at the Muse border trade zone.

The export market for eel was worth about $16 million in the 2006-2007 fiscal year, according to government data, and that has later increased to over $40 million.

The military government investigated Soe Htun Shein after he was accused of charging an unfairly high service fee to buyers and suppliers at Muse, an officer from the fisheries federation who was involved in the investigation told Myanmar Now. Authorities ordered him to lower his fee from 5% to 3% after the probe. 

To win that tender, Soe Htun Shein had to beat several competitors. But it was his successful bid against 17 others to win the Moehti Moemi contract that raised eyebrows.

A senior executive at one of the losing companies, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said NPGPG’s proposal to pay 5.5 tons of gold to the government over five years had sounded overambitious at the time. 

“We estimated we could pay two tons of gold to the government within five years. Everyone was surprised when they proposed that quantity,” the executive said. 

The way the tender system worked before the NLD took office allowed those on good terms with the government to win bids by promising to pay large sums in tax, said Sithu Aung Myint. 

Then the companies would later amend their contracts so they would never have to fulfill the generous promises they made, he said. 

“The NLD does not allow this type of behavior,” he added.

The company signed its first contract with the government-owned No. 2 Mining Enterprise in 2011. The two parties amended the contract in November 2013 to allow NPGPG eight years instead of five to pay the agreed amount. 

Ten months later, they amended the contract again, this time to tweak the agreed monthly repayments to allow NPGPG to pay less earlier on and make up the difference later. 

The company asked the government to amend the contract a fourth time in July 2016, arguing in a letter to officials that the terms it had agreed to before were “very unfair and one-sided.” 

Instead of agreeing to amend, the NLD sent a team to the mines to investigate. The team included the former deputy minister of mines Ko Ko Than and seven other former government officials. 

The investigation started in early 2017. After seven months the team concluded: “The company is in a good condition to pay the fixed sum of gold within the period agreed in the contract.”

The government warned the company its mining permit would be revoked if it failed to comply. Company executives met mining ministry officials in 2017 and promised to pay off the debt. 

But the government says that after that meeting the company only repaid the debt for July and August 2017 before ceasing payments. Officials referred the case to the president’s office, which gave the green light to shut the company down. 

‘We will not sit back’ 

During a shareholder meeting in June 2017, Soe Htun Shein said that the company would be unable to pay dividends to its investors because it had been unable to mine as much gold as first intended. He said the company would need to amend its contract with the NLD, and that if the request was denied shareholders should prepare to protest. 

“If the government treats us unfairly, we will not just sit back,” Soe Htun Shein said during the speech, which was captured on video. 

He kept his promise, staging a protest in Nay Pyi Taw in June 2018 where demonstrators blamed the government for the shutdown of the mine. 

The protest angered NPGPG’s subcontractors, who blamed the company, not the government, for the shutdown. They staged their own protest in Mandalay to make it clear they felt NPGPG was the reason they were losing money. 

A crowd of some 300 demonstrators waved placards demanding the company “give the government the 607 viss of gold that we already paid them.” 

The subcontractors’ protest led to yet more lawsuits, with NPGPG’s director Thura Zaw suing nine entrepreneurs for defamation. Their cases are still being heard in court. 


Investors told Myanmar Now they sunk large sums of money into mines at Moehti Moemi and fear they may not get it back.

NPGPG operated the four main mines at the site and partnered with 34 other businesses to operate the rest. The partner businesses worked across 70 mines and invested an estimated 30 billion kyats – or just under $20 million. 

“We invested in this as a 20-year project but once we started mining the business was shut down,” said one entrepreneur who invested 10 billion kyats and spoke on condition of anonymity. 

He and other partner businesses say responsibility for their losses lies with NPGPG because the company failed in its obligation to provide the government with enough gold.

It was not just the gold miners who descended into infighting. Officials on the government side feuded publicly too. 

  1. Tun Win, the NLD MP for Yemethin township faced accusations of being a shill for NPGPG because he sought to help the company win back its license. 

In an interview with Radio Free Asia in January, the general manager of the No. 2 Mining Enterprise, Aye Zaw, labelled Tun Tun Win a “stooge” for the company and said he did not have the interests of the country at heart.

In response, the NLD MP filed a defamation lawsuit against Aye Zaw that could see him jailed for two years. 

The MP argues that the country is losing out on tax revenue as a result of the shutdown and that thousands have lost their jobs. He also says that the number of arrests for illegal gold mining have gone up since the shutdown. He added that disciplinary officers from the NLD’s Yangon headquarters took his side when someone complained about him.

“If I said nothing and kept quiet, the people who voted for me would think all I did was collect my paychecks,” Tun Tun Win said. 

In April 2019, police arrested Than Daing, managing director of the state-owned No. 2 Mining Enterprise, on corruption charges. The Anti-Corruption Commission accused Than Daing of using company money to pay for family vacations, and of having the company do landscaping work for him on land he owned. He faces 10 years in prison. 

The commission has not disclosed who reported Than Daing, but NPGPG’s managing director Htun Aung Soe told The Speaker newspaper in March that he had bribed an officer from No. 2 Mining Enterprise. 

Two days after they detained Than Daing, police arrested Htun Aung Soe for making false bribery claims against public officials. The Anti-Corruption Commission said he falsely accused officials and police of taking bribes in exchange for allowing eight smaller companies to continue working at Moehti Moemi after the government ordered them to stop. His trial continues. 

Authorities have issued an order to prevent Soe Htun Shein leaving the country, but even from hiding he has continued funding the Buddha Dhamma Charity Foundation.

Like its predecessor Ma Ba Tha, the foundation has now been outlawed by the government, though it has continued operating anyway. In July Soe Htun Shein covered expenses for lunches at the foundation’s annual assembly, which was attended by thousands of monks. 

The police’s failure to apprehend him, along with Nyi Nyi Lwin’s account of being warned he was wanted by police, have fuelled suspicions that Soe Htun Shein is using his power and influence to avoid arrest. 

At a press conference in July last year, he said he would happily face justice if he had done anything wrong. “If I cheated even a single tical of gold, I will go to the gallows,” he declared. 

For now, though, he is nowhere to be seen. 

(Editing by Joshua Carroll)

‘The Tatmadaw is the mother and the father!’ – inside the militarised schools training Myanmar’s civil servants

Students are taught a ‘strict sense of obedience’ and must clap exactly 20 times at the end of each class.

Students listen to a lecture at the institute’s Hlegu branch (Photo: Myanmar Now)

PYIN OO LWIN — About a hundred public servants were perched at their desks in an echoey lecture hall one afternoon in November, pens at the ready.

The students at the hall in Pyin Oo Lwin township were taking part in an eight-week course designed to train people taking on more senior government jobs.

Today’s lesson was on geopolitics. But some of the theories that Dr Tun Min shared about Myanmar’s place in the world were of questionable educational value.

Saudi Arabia, he declared, has offered to help Britain pay its multi-billion pound divorce bill when it leaves the European Union.

If the UK is taking money from a Muslim country, it’s little wonder that British media coverage of the Rohingya crisis has been so biased against Myanmar’s government, he mused.

“Is Saudi Arabia likely to be on our side or on ARSA’s?” he asked, referring to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, whose deadly attacks on police posts in August 2017 were used to justify a massive military crackdown against the Rohingya.

When asked by Myanmar Now, Dr Tun Min was unable to offer any evidence for his claim that Saudi Arabia was helping to pay Britain’s Brexit divorce bill.

This branch of the Central Institute for Civil Service, a 900-acre complex of one-storey brick buildings built in 1999, is one of two facilities where those who make up the backbone of government services in Myanmar go to train.

Thousands of managerial staff who help administer policy – from immigration, health and taxation to energy, agriculture and construction – are trained at the institute every year.

The first facility, located in Hlegu, Yangon region, was founded by the generals in 1965 and was “a place where military propaganda was hammered into the employees,” said, U Kyee Myint, a former student.

Dr Tun Min gives a lecture at the institute’s Pyin Oo Lwin branch in November (Photo: Myanmar Now)

Since Aung San Suu Kyi’s government came to power, the institute has undergone changes aimed at bringing it in line with a more democratic era.

There are no more military training drills, and students no longer have to all wear the same blue uniform; instead they attend class in their ordinary work clothes.

But, as with the country at large, the powerful influence of the military is still apparent at the centers.

The rectors are both retired military men, while some lectures draw on army propaganda and Buddhist nationalist rhetoric.

“The Tatmadaw is the mother, the Tatmadaw is the father!” Dr Tun Min declared to students in late 2017, according to Dr Soe Thura Zaw, a dental health officer at a public hospital in Mogok township and a former student at the institute. (In Myanmar, the term civil servant covers a broader range of government employees than in some other countries.)

At the end of class, Soe Thura Zaw said, students are instructed to clap exactly 20 times.

“One of our key objectives is to imbue the civil servants with a strict sense of obedience,” said U Nyi Nyi San, rector at the Pyin Oo Lwin facility and a retired lieutenant colonel.  

“Top officials at government ministries often tell us that’s what they expect most from their staff,” he said.

But he added: “We don’t promote any propaganda.”

Despite the NLD’s landslide 2015 victory, the military has maintained significant influence over large numbers of government employees.

But the civilian administration signalled its intention to wrest some of this control back earlier this month by announcing plans to move the powerful General Administration Department out from under the military-controlled home affairs ministry.

The department’s 36,000 staff have significant reach, operating in every township in the country collecting taxes, maintaining law and order and settling disputes.  

‘Traitor maggots’

Dr Tun Min concluded his class in November by showing a collage of photos. In one, an image of a Buddhist flag was accompanied by the phrase, “Myanmar Theravada Buddhism must last forever”.

Beneath it was a picture of a dead Myanmar policeman lying in a pool of blood and another of Russian President Vladimir Putin above a quote that has previously been falsely attributed to him: “Russia does not need the minorities, the minorities need Russia”.

A collage of photos from a slideshow during Dr Tun Min’s lecture (Photo: Myanmar Now)

During the 2017 class, Dr Soe Thura Zaw claims, the lecturer criticised the NLD by saying the peace process was failing because the party was “unwilling” to make it work.

The doctor said he debated the lecturer and suggested that if armed groups are unwilling to achieve peace, the government’s efforts are bound to fail.

“He ended the lecture by saying he could swear an oath with blood from his arm that the Tatmadaw wants peace,” Dr Soe Thura Zaw said.

The lecturer denies criticising the NLD, and says he only stated that Aung San Suu Kyi once urged ethnic armed groups not to rush into signing ceasefire agreements before her party could form a majority government.

He has also aired his views on the state counsellor and the military on his Facebook page.

In one post, he appeared to reference unfounded rumours that foreign armed forces were planning to invade Myanmar.

“The Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Services is preparing for foreign wars together with ethnic leaders,” he wrote in September last year. “Wait and see where the traitor maggots run.”

In another he shared a cartoon that portrayed Aung San Suu Kyi, with help from the US and the UN, pulling an image of Myanmar apart.

‘Like a Ma Ba Tha dhamma’

Late last year, Soe Thura Zaw decided to post on Facebook about his experience at the institute. He mentioned in the post, which went viral, that lecturers had told students not to marry people from different religions, and not to spend money at shops owned by people from other religions.

The political science lectures were like a “Ma Ba Tha dhamma talk,” he wrote, referring to the group led by nationalist monks that was officially declared unlawful in 2017.

After the post, he was accused of violating regulations for government staff and was questioned by superiors at the Ministry of Health in Mandalay.

In response, hundreds of former students from the course took part in a social media campaign by writing “We stand with Dr Soe Thura Zaw” on their Facebook timelines. Former students who studied at the institute with him posted messages saying that he was telling the truth about the course.

Students at the institute’s Pyin Oo Lwin branch (Photo: Myanmar Now)

The ministry of health called a press conference last month to address the controversy. Minister Dr Myint Htwe told reporters Dr Soe Thura Zaw was a “hardworking and intelligent” person, and there is no plan to take further action against him.

‘No benefit’

Another former student recalled a lecturer using more subtle methods to express their dissatisfaction with the NLD leader.

Naing Htoo Aung, a medical doctor, said that during a political science lecture in 2015, the lecturer dimmed sections of patriotic words and phrases that matched up with parts of the NLD leader’s name – the implication being that she was not patriotic.

“When the words ‘Pyi Daung Suu Sait Dat’ [Union Spirit] were shown on the projector, the word ‘Suu’ was dimmer than other words,” the former student said.

“In another sentence that contained the words ‘Amyotha A Chin Chin Chit Kyi Yinne Yey’ [friendship among citizens], the word ‘Kyi’ had a lighter color. It was like that,” he said.

Dr Naing Htoo Aung found the course overall to be unhelpful.

“The good thing was I made a lot of friends, I got better at socializing. That’s the only good thing about the course – the rest offered no benefit at all,” he said.

“These courses are just a waste of government funding,” said Dr Soe Thura Zaw.

Dr Soe Thura Zaw on duty in a public hospital in the town of Mogok in Upper Myanmar. (Photo: Myanmar Now)

Rector U Nyi Nyi San said he found that doctors are usually the most difficult to discipline because there is a shortage of medical staff. So the civil service board must accept them even if they fail the course.

At the institute’s Hlegu branch in November, associate professor Yin Yin Nwe taught a political science class of about 100 that included police officers and judicial employees.  

Holding a wireless microphone, she echoed points that appeared in school textbooks under military rule.

She explained that military leaders had little choice but to maintain power in Myanmar for decades after a 1962 coup, and stated that the 2008 constitution was passed with public support.

In fact the referendum to approve the charter was considered a sham by local and international rights groups.

She also suggested to students that foreign powers were using the media to “interfere” in Myanmar’s affairs and were disseminating fake news.

The lecturer told Myanmar Now she taught her classes based on directions from her superiors.


Rectors U Nyi Nyi San and U Aung Tin Soe, who heads the Hlegu facility, said the even though they are both former military men, the courses are taught according to the policy of the current government.

One of the biggest changes under the NLD, they said, is that military drills have been replaced with lessons on subjects such as management, economics, social sciences, law and English.

About 10,000 government staff a year receive training at the facilities, which each have a budget of three billion kyat, or roughly US$2 million.

The deputy information minister U Aung Hla Tun, who attended a course at the institute in 1983, said that while he made lots of friends and learnt useful things such as accounting, he also experienced “brainwashing” while there.

He said he supports further changes to modernise the courses at the institute.

“We don’t want to close them down. But the course curriculum needs to be changed a lot,” he said.

(Editing by Joshua Carroll)

Related Articles

Back to top button