The junta propaganda debacle in Dili

Observers of Myanmar’s repressive military are well versed in its clumsy propaganda, equal parts violent menace and comical conspiracy theory. 

The post-coup narrative of an election stolen by the National League for Democracy (NLD) prompting a military takeover is the centerpiece of the current junta’s grievances. So absurdly exaggerated are the claims of NLD malfeasance that not even the deposed government’s critics take them seriously, and all justifications for the February 2021 coup are empty words given the scale of the violence unleashed by the military.

But at a recent regional media conference in Dili, Timor-Leste, the alternative reality of the Myanmar military was provided a platform, an opportunity for junta soft power. 

At the annual Dili Dialogue Forum held from August 25-26, Aye Chan, a member of the Myanmar Press Council (MPC), delivered a presentation titled “Media Challenges in Myanmar.” He promised important corrections to the litany of distorted reporting on the country, claiming “the whole world has been bombarded with so many fake news.” 

His main messages were that the NLD rigged “12 million votes” in the November 2020 nationwide elections, that 300,000 people voted twice, and 20,000 people over the age of 100 also cast ballots—allegations that stand at odds with independent observers who concluded that the elections reflected the people’s will. 

In an uncritical repetition of junta claims repeated in speeches and press conferences in Naypyitaw, Aye Chan also stated that “90 percent” of NLD ministers and officials had been charged or jailed for corruption. 

Particularly unsettling within the context of a media conference, he attacked Myanmar’s news sector writ large, claiming without evidence of any kind that media had “become a tool for terrorists,” with “20% of donations collected by them going to media for writing fake news on FB.”  

A screengrab from Aye Chan’s presentation at the Dili Dialogue Forum in August

Omitted from his overview was the junta murder of three Myanmar journalists since the coup and the arrest of more than 150 during that same period—some 50 of whom are still behind bars. The military council has also banned the operations of 12 media outlets, forcing hundreds of reporters into hiding or exile.

Aye Chan went on to attack what he called “The Beautiful Facebook” claiming—again, without supporting facts—that “80-100% of What you See on FB is BS!” and describing the social media platform as host to “all illegal activities.” 

He then digressed into the ability to buy endangered tigers on Facebook in Myanmar.

The only passably accurate section was in describing the poor state of the country’s economy, but even this flash of reality was dashed by the final slides which were starkly at odds with almost all independent and professional news reports coming out of the country. They included statements such as “Terrorism is down and tourism up!” and “Divestments are down and investment are up again” as well as “Totally safe to travel in Myanmar. More people realizing on fake news and media of fortune.” 

He placed the economic forecast at a growth rate of three to five percent, a so-called result of a Google Analytics assessment, accompanied by some dubious looking activity charts. 

As if he was actually having fun with the forum, Aye Chan concluded with a slide on how the MPC conducts “Fake News Spotting” training.

A junta-run propaganda outlet later endorsed his speech, claiming that the attendees—which reportedly included press council representatives from Australia, Indonesia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Thailand—had “expressed their astonishment over the presentation at the forum in comparison with the fake news of Myanmar mentioned in the international media.” 

This was in no way a measured, alternative analysis of the current dynamics of the conflict, political and economic realities in Myanmar. With no grounding in evidence or journalistic ethics,  it was a regurgitation of military reconstructions of reality, total fabrications and a dismissal of mass atrocities; even as subprime propaganda it was inchoate.

Who is Aye Chan? 

According to Myanmar business sources, erstwhile ‘journalist’ Aye Chan is the son of Soe Thane, who was once Myanmar’s navy chief and served as a senior advisor to ex-President Thein Sein. He has supported the coup and condemned Aung San Suu Kyi. These traits obviously run in the family.

According to his MPC online profile, Aye Chan is accredited to the online publication Myanmar Insider. An article under the byline of ‘zhm’ called “Facebook the Beautiful” and published on August 25 mirrored Aye Chan’s presentation at the Dili Forum, almost word for word. This likely establishes ‘zhm’ as a nom de plume for Aye Chan (or the MPC member is a plagiarist). 

A screengrab from footage of Aye Chan’s presentation at the Dili Dialogue Forum in August

The Myanmar Insider’s address is listed as 365 Bogyoke Aung San Road in Yangon, a location also home to the city’s first KFC fast food outlet. Sources within the business sector have suggested that Aye Chan may likely own the property, although official documentation is not available to confirm this.  

Multiple Myanmar Insider articles were cited in the Dili forum presentation, including titles such as “Union Election Commission Findings on Election Fraud” written by “Charlie Greene” (possibly another of Aye Chan’s pseudonyms), “Q & A With a Political Insider” also by zhm, and “NNPC Terrorist Statistics,” an acronym seemingly created by the publication to jointly reference the NLD, National Unity Government, Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw and the People’s Defence Forces. 

Somewhat incongruously, it features profiles on “digital nomads,” a Bangladeshi non-governmental organisation, Nairobi National Park, and a critique of US sanctions on Cuba. Any media literate professional would not have to spend long perusing Myanmar Insider to conclude it is likely a disinformation site. Anyone versed in Myanmar propaganda would take even less time. 

An invitation to Dili

The Dili Dialogue Forum has been a venue to discuss regional media issues since 2017, in honour of the first Timor-Leste Press Council that was established one year earlier. The Jakarta office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has financially supported the forum since 2018, as it did this year. UNESCO continues some of its operations in Myanmar, having recently conducted a training for monastic and ethnic educators.

It is inconceivable that current President of Timor-Leste José Ramos-Horta wittingly provided a forum for pro-junta propaganda. He has been a vocal supporter of the Myanmar rights and democracy movement for many years, and has strongly condemned the 2021 coup. When still in opposition last year, he called the decision by the East-Timorese government to abstain from the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Myanmar’s regime as a “vote of shame.” 

Writing in Newsweek in late 2021, Ramos-Horta advocated for increased international action against the junta, in particular calling out the pernicious effects of Facebook to bolster the military. In early June he posted on his presidential website a report detailing a series of attacks on the Bayingyi community in Sagaing Region—the Roman Catholic descendants of Portuguese mercenaries who settled there in the 17th century. Having his photo taken next to an arch denier of those atrocities was not a sound move.

The organisers of future forums, and all public spaces for the media in Southeast Asia, need to do a much better job at vetting their speakers. Due diligence was absent in Dili. Lamentably, there did not appear to be much public pushback on Aye Chan’s so-called “facts” from the audience either: no Q&A, but he was gifted a handsome Timorese scarf.

Aye Chan’s presentation at the forum could be dismissed as an unfortunate anomaly, a mistake that organisers must endeavor not to repeat. However, there are two broad reasons to call for increased regional vigilance to avoid inadvertently providing an audience to military propaganda. 

Regional attempts at mediation with Myanmar may be ineffective, due predominantly to junta obstructions, with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Five Point Consensus floundering, and Indonesia poised to take over as chair of the regional grouping in January.

Misleading efforts by Aye Chan and other pro-military propagandists may seem absurd to many. But it is at the peril of the unwitting to take at face value such claims of promised elections in 2023, a functioning peace process, relative stability, and the discrediting of the entire resistance movement as “terrorism,” while downplaying growing economic privation with false claims of a business uptick.

The second is the accumulation of relatively minor but dispiriting international measures or mistakes around the same week as the Dili Forum, small steps that sap the morale of beleaguered communities in and outside Myanmar: a joint letter signed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to “Prime Minister Min Aung Hlaing;” UN Food and Agriculture Organisation representative Yuka Makino presenting her credentials to the military council’s foreign minister; and UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs country head David Carden signing a Letter of Agreement with a junta ministry. 

Somehow these microaggressions compound the unrelenting bad news from multiple conflict zones, the currency crash, rising costs of living, and an implacable junta.

Aye Chan’s Dili delivery was so ham-fisted it should not do any damage to anything but his reputation. But it is incumbent upon the organisers to ensure their forum is not a delivery vehicle for junta propaganda, and to issue a repudiation of the heartless falsehoods delivered there by an obviously disreputable purveyor of disinformation.

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst on conflict and human rights issues in Myanmar

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