With many parts of the country under a junta-imposed internet blackout, Myanmar’s military regime has turned to an old-school method of spreading its message among the masses: dropping propaganda pamphlets from helicopters.
The flyers have been found in a number of areas where the military continues to face fierce resistance to its rule nearly a full year after it seized power in a coup last February.
These include Sagaing Region’s Budalin, Ye-U, Yinmarpin, Kalay, Kani, Taze, Mingin, Kanbalu, Kyunhla and Kawlin townships, as well as northern Magway’s Yaw region.
Printed on sheets of A4-sized paper folded into three parts, the flyers contain a mixture of direct and veiled threats aimed at anyone who might be tempted to support or join the anti-junta People’s Defence Force (PDF).
They warn that villages that are found to harbour PDF fighters face “segregation,” putting their inhabitants under the control of military forces.
“Will you let your homes be destroyed?” asks one leaflet, in a not-so-subtle reminder of the fate of the many villages that have been torched by occupying soldiers in recent months.
“Fight alongside the army against the PDF!” exhorts another that suggests the real threat comes from the resistance forces and their shadowy backers, who seek to tear Myanmar apart for their own nefarious reasons.
Some of the flyers were discovered during the search for casualties of the junta’s ongoing campaign to crush PDF groups operating in Sagaing.
According to Thant Wai Kyaw, an MP who was elected to represent Kalay Township’s Constituency 1 in Sagaing’s regional parliament, flyers that had been dropped on December 27 were found among the bodies of civilians killed in villages targeted for destruction by the regime.
“I would like to tell them to be prepared to face the punishment that awaits them for their atrocious crimes,” she said of the generals waging war on their own citizens.
In Kani Township, where a local PDF group has been clashing with military forces transporting jade along the Chindwin River, the propaganda pamphlets were mocked as a crude attempt to turn ordinary people against anti-regime forces.
“This is just psychological warfare. But we’re not in 1988 anymore. This is the age of the internet,” said one member of the Kani PDF.
“The fact is, they don’t have complete control over people now, so that means they’re really out of options,” he added.
The information officer for another group based in Myinmu Township echoed this sentiment, saying that the leaflets were unlikely to have much impact among people who have suffered enormously under military rule.
“Do they think people are stupid enough to buy their propaganda? There are no words to describe the hatred that the people of Myanmar have for the military,” he said.
Nay Zin Latt, another Sagaing regional MP who was elected to represent Kanbalu Township’s Constituency 2, noted that the pamphlet campaign started at around the same time as the junta lost its last remaining access to Facebook after the social-media giant was sued for failing to prevent the spread of misinformation about the Rohingya.
“Now that Facebook is shutting down junta-affiliated pages, they can’t spread their propaganda through social media anymore. That’s why they’ve had to resort to dropping pamphlets from helicopters,” he said.
The military still has control over state media, and also has media outlets of its own. For the most part, however, these are recognised for what they are—junta mouthpieces that routinely misrepresent what is actually happening in Myanmar.
That has left the military with one important means of managing the flow of information—its ability to shut down the internet entirely in areas where it has very little control over anything else.
By throwing pamphlets from helicopters, the military may be hoping to enhance its ability to wage psychological warfare in enemy territory. So far, however, it has only deployed this weapon in Sagaing and Magway regions, and not in parts of neighbouring Chin and Kachin states where internet restrictions have also been imposed.
The reason for this probably has something to do with the nature of the message that the pamphlets have been seeking to spread, which is aimed chiefly at members of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority.
According to flyers seen by Myanmar Now, the conflict sweeping the country has been orchestrated by those who seek to destroy Buddhism—namely, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
“The OIC is propagandising against the Buddhist people so they will turn on each other, insult the sacred religion of Buddhism, and kill monks. They are bribing [the PDF] with money and supporting them with weapons,” the pamphlet claims.
“The OIC and KIA will be very happy if Buddhists fight each other,” it adds.
Such claims would not do much to influence the thinking of Chin or Kachin people, most of whom are Christian. Nor are they expressed in the relatively moderate language of state media outlets, which are usually careful to profess respect for all faiths. They sound more like social-media posts by extreme nationalists or pro-military trolls.
Interestingly, the flyers also state that the junta has armed more than 100 pro-regime groups. None of them are named, but they likely include the Pyu Saw Htee, a military-backed group that has carried out attacks on opponents of the junta.
In a sign of what may be yet to come, residents of Mandalay have reported seeing similar flyers posted in several wards and villages in Chanmyatharzi and Amarapura townships. According to residents, villagers who tore them down were beaten by soldiers.