The Myanmar junta’s bumbling propagandist returns

Aye Chan’s recent appearance in the Indian capital raises the question of whether his crude and delusional message might actually resonate with some audiences

Myanmar’s military regime is not renowned for its sophisticated propaganda machine. Much of what passes for strategic messaging from the ruling State Administration Council (SAC) is a sinister stew of old-time junta sloganeering, flat denials of clearly evident events, and blame-shifting to their opponents. 

One of the arch peddlers of alternative facts for Min Aung Hlaing and his regime is the Myanmar businessman and purported head of the Myanmar Press Council, Aye Chan. A regular drivel scribbler for The Global New Light of Myanmar and his own pamphlet, Myanmar Insider, Aye Chan (or “UAC,” to use his propaganda nom de plume) is an unoriginal, bumbling, gormless gadfly. But the question is, has he been effective in reaching certain audiences with the alternative, “SAC-positive” reality that he presents?

Following his notorious hoodwinking of a regional media conference in East Timor in mid-2022, Aye Chan was recently back at it, taking his message from Dili to Delhi. While it is difficult to take his mishmash of conspiracy theory presented as Myanmar reality seriously, at least some in his audience at the Foreign Correspondents Club of South Asia in the Indian capital appeared to be receptive.

Clumsy media manipulation

His briefing at first threatened to be just a rehash of his presentation from 2022, where he claimed Facebook was being used to spread misinformation and raise funds for terrorism. This time, however, he added another alleged malefactor:

“Fake news is still being generated out of Chiang Mai…a lot of fake media agencies are there. … Allegedly, [the] CIA headquarters of Thailand is also in Chiang Mai, allegedly they are the one funding them…so they are producing the fake news that is not true.” 

This would likely have come as news to the US Central Intelligence Agency, but Aye Chan was not about to let this give him pause, and so he babbled on: 

“If Indian reporters, Indian journalists take this fake news and report it, the whole world…sort of believes that as if it’s the fake news.”

One slide of the presentation also took advantage of a recent “unforced error” by the US government. Repeating the military council’s absurd narrative that the anti-regime People’s Defence Force (PDF) and National Unity Government (NUG) are responsible for nationwide “terrorism,” Aye Chan cites “terrorist statistics” that he claims were compiled by the CIA. Without going into much detail, he unconvincingly asserts that according to an unspecified  “CIA report,” terrorist attacks by PDF groups had increased recently. 

But the report he appears to be referring to wasn’t produced by the CIA. It was the US State Department’s Annual Terrorism Report—and not the main narrative report, but the Annex of Statistical Information 2022, which contained erroneous and misleading data on “terrorist attacks” attributed to the Myanmar resistance, with no mention of the Myanmar military. The data was prepared by Development Services Group (DSG), a Washington, DC-based firm that specialises in “Behavioral Health, Justice, Education and International Development.” It was another example of the kind of gift an incompetent contractor and an inattentive government system can present to authoritarian propagandists like Aye Chan. The SAC official media also had a field day with the mistaken annex when it surfaced in late 2023.

Aye Chan attempted to ingratiate himself with the audience by presenting himself as a genuine journalist whose strong public stance has adversely impacted on his business fortunes, claiming that following the Dili presentation he had even received death threats on Facebook. These death threats occur “when the narrative is not to their liking,” he said. 

He also tried to both disassociate himself from the military and boast of his close ties, noting that his father, Soe Thane, is the former head of the Myanmar Navy. “I’m not doing what the military instructed…I never even served. Obviously being part of the military family of course I love the armed forces because they protect the country,” he said. 

At one point, showing a picture of his father with a former Indian naval chief, he makes the ludicrous claim that Soe Thane helped to make Myanmar’s navy the 15th largest in the world, without saying what international ranking this was based on. He later asserts that Myanmar’s air force is “20-something in the world” and is totally intact—ignoring the fact that several small jets and helicopters have been downed by the resistance in recent months.

His claim that in Myanmar “Facebook is the internet” probably needs to be unpacked. Twitter is increasingly in use by younger activists, as is TikTok. The media also make use of YouTube. The Operation 1027 Twitter handle is a good source of information on conflict in Shan and Arakan states, because the four members of the Northern Alliance were deplatformed in 2019. And at least for more Chinese-leaning audiences, the Kuaishou video-sharing app is very popular for northern Myanmar communities, especially Kokang communities and soldiers.

When asked by an Indian journalist what his thoughts are on the state of the civil war, he refers to a short article he wrote on January 15 in The Global Light of Myanmar called “How to Know if Myanmar Military is Really Losing!” He makes five points to proclaim that the Myanmar military is prevailing. The first is that its air force is ranked 13th and its navy 34th globally. (Why bother being consistent when you’re blatantly fabricating everything, anyway?) He further claims that Regional Military Commands (ROC) and Light Infantry Divisions are all still intact and haven’t been overrun, failing to mention that the units that make up these commands have been significantly degraded, making the physical capture of an ROC base area less important than it might seem. He also doesn’t seem to have heard that numerous brigadier-level general officers have been captured or killed in anti-regime attacks in northern Shan, Rakhine, and Karenni states, making nonsense of his claim that there has been no “capture or defection of a colonel-level” officer. 

One of the five points in the article attempts to minimise the major losses the military has suffered in recent months: “Other than drone attacks on some understrength outposts and civilian and civil servants buildings, which major town or city has been captured? Shwebo, Sagaing, Mawlamyine anyone? That would be a definite blow to the Myanmar military.” Well, Laukkai, Paletwa, Minbya, Kutkai and Chin Swe Haw and several others are not insignificant, and “understrength outposts” don’t have heavy artillery and hundreds of soldiers. His article and presentation were both thoroughly fabricated distortions of reality.

Claiming that large parts of Myanmar are “autonomous regions” with no Myanmar army or police, he goes on to assert that the troops manning the many “small government outposts” in northeastern Shan State were merely making a “tactical retreat” when they fled their posts after coming under attack during Operation 1027.

He goes on to say how grateful he is that the military never really left power when it allowed a transition to quasi-civilian rule more than a decade ago: “Thank God, I’m happy, we still kept the military rule. … If not, our country would be in more serious trouble than what would have been.” It’s cold comfort, but somehow positive to hear people like Aye Chan reveal their true colours after years of proclaiming themselves to be “reformers.”

He concludes his formal presentation with a tantalizing bit of apparent inside information about changes within the military council. “We are going to have a bit of reshuffling, a bit of maybe interim government, like I don’t know, Bangladesh. So wait for the news day after tomorrow…so a new head of state or new head of military, we don’t know because on the economic front as well as the military front we have been performing below par, so we need to make some changes so that we can push the country forward back to normal.” Nothing of the sort has so far emerged.

One audience member called ‘KP Naya’, in mercurial fashion, blamed the current situation on the United States. “There was a rush of Americans into the country, you allowed all sorts of Americans in, without any restraint, without any restrictions, and you talk about Facebook in its present state about Myanmar and stories, fake stories being manufactured from Chiang Mai…but this was all facilitated because you removed all the restrictions and thought the Americans were your friends. Americans are nobody’s friends except their own…in my humble view you have yourself to blame.”

Aye Chan’s response: “You are totally right, totally so true.”

The bizarre thing here is that one of the Thein Sein administration’s principle “reformers,” who was beloved uncritically by the United States, was Soe Thane. His son dramatically distorts history by claiming a “loads of foreigners came in” during the 2016-2020 government and “loads of laws” were abolished that would have made a police state more efficient: “It was a like a free for all thing.” In retrospect the “free for all” was from 2013 to 2015, during the Thein Sein government, and it appears as if some of the “reformers” were two-faced thugs who were never serious about genuine systemic change.

Blowback from the Dili debacle

Aye Chan claimed at the FCC South Asia event that Myanmar Insider is the only private English-language publication in the country, which grants him regular access to embassies and diplomats. (China Daily is also available, but he may be unaware of this.) His columns in the regime-controlled media are verbose ramblings laden with stitched together facts. In the past year, he has published pieces on the United States presidential race, the issuing of the commemorative 20,000 kyat note, and one on tips to eliminate bad online shopping practices, which includes advice that applies equally to Aye Chan: “From products claiming to enhance your manhood to those that claim to be a cure for all, Facebook online shops are filled with items with unverifiable and dubious claims.”

There was likely little significant misinformation impact from the New Delhi event: Aye Chan was unconvincing and his audience appeared to be a mixture of the bored and disinterested and already anti-West inclined. Myanmar Now reported on the Dili debacle in September 2022, and it’s worth reflecting on the blowback from that event to assess the damage Aye Chan inflicted. It was self-defeating for Myanmar in the long run.

East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta was deeply embarrassed by the Dili Forum scandal. Official rhetoric against the Myanmar regime, already much stronger than in other regional states, started to intensify. In mid-2023, Ramos-Horta invited NUG Foreign Minister Zin Mar Aung to a swearing-in ceremony for newly elected Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. NUG Human Rights Minister Aung Myo Min was also invited for another event. Apoplectic, the Myanmar regime expelled East Timor’s chargé d’affaires in Yangon. 

By the end of 2023, Myanmar state propaganda was condemning East Timor in multiple stories and with obviously carefully arranged street demonstrations. Ramos-Horta and other officials issued persistent criticism of the atrocities perpetrated by the Myanmar military, calling for stronger action by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and even leveraging East Timor’s plans to join the regional grouping to promote Myanmar freedom. It may have had little immediate impact on conflict events inside Myanmar, but it was proof that condemnation of atrocity crimes, and public support for the NUG, needled the junta, and supplied moral solidarity to their opponents. East Timor redeemed its judgement lapse of 2022.

Will Myanmar Misinformation Resonate in India?

Aye Chan’s inane blubbering does, however, raise broader questions of what India is thinking about events in Myanmar? His appearance suggests a disconcerting dearth of rudimentary knowledge of dynamics inside Myanmar by so many in the Indian media scene. Much of the commentary since the coup has leaned towards the regime, and for several years the Indian media has been virulently anti-Rohingya. FCC South Asia President Venkat Narayan made a controversial visit to Myanmar in June of 2023, prompting a reported 10 foreign correspondents to resign from the club, including correspondents from Agence France Press, The Economist, and the Washington Post. He then went on to an undistinguished and short-lived career as a roving correspondent for the Global New Light of Myanmar.

But post-Operation 1027 dynamics have evinced some measure of rethink. Aye Chan’s fatuous claims that only isolated and unmanned outposts have been overrun glaringly doesn’t tally with realities on the ground. Several times since November, large numbers of Myanmar security personnel have fled from Arakan Army assaults and sought sanctuary in India’s Mizoram State. In January, an estimated 270 soldiers with several officers fled en masse, including their battalion leader, a colonel. The bellyflop landing of the repatriation flight at Mizoram’s Lengpui airport must have underscored the hapless state of the Myanmar military: Aye Chan’s appearance in New Delhi occurred several days after the incident.

Any serious discussion amongst the Indian national security apparatus has to take into account the highly uncertain standing of the Myanmar regime. India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, is undoubtedly following the conflict closely, but is the Modi administration taking heed of the real signs of potential long-term collapse of the military? The Indian Ministry of External Affairs issued a travel advisory on February 6 instructing Indian nationals not to travel to Rakhine State and instructing those already there to leave immediately “in view of the deteriorating security situation, disruption of means of telecommunications, including landlines, and severe scarcity of essential commodities.”

Anshuman Choudhury at the Barbed Wires Substack wrote recently that India’s Myanmar policy was misguided, and that what some observers perceive as New Delhi’s “strategic restraint” as really “strategic indifference.” To cling to relations with the military in Naypyitaw is simply counter-productive. Indian approaches to Myanmar are driven by an “overwhelming incentive within the Indian foreign policy system to prioritize economic growth and strategic outreach over idealism. The result was a cold, arithmetic mantra—work with whoever is in power in the Burmese capital.” This also entailed closer military ties over the past decade, which has largely driven the Modi government’s obsession with border stability and countering China. Yet the Indian provision of a Russian-manufactured Kilo-class submarine in 2020 is empty prestige purchasing (China then sold a second submarine in December 2021). In any event, the discovery of an Indian-manufactured torpedo on a Rakhine beach in July 2022 doesn’t suggest a strong naval capacity, and submarines are notoriously unsuited to counter-insurgency warfare.

In the end, is Aye Chan a sinister psychological warfare operator or simply a buffoon? He’s indisputably a disinformation peddler, but a decidedly clumsy one. His limp presentation was a storm in a soiled teacup. But then he’s just one of the most self-promotional performers in a regime with an elaborately unconvincing propaganda machine. Minister for Information Maung Maung Ohn recently addressed a “Prevention of Toxic Media” forum in Mandalay, where he told students “some media outlets intentionally create situations to put the country in serious trouble. Fake news and misinformation cause undesirable situations. It should also be considered whether the news is right or wrong without basing it on emotion. Only the emotion can cause delusion.” There must be enormous emotion in Aye Chan: with great emotion comes great delusion.

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

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