Particularly disturbing in the context of a press conference, he attacked Myanmar’s news sector wholesale, claiming without evidence of any kind that the media had “become a tool for terrorists”, “20% of donations collected by them going to the media for writing fakes”. news on FB.
The junta’s murder of three Burmese journalists since the coup and the arrest of more than 150 in the same period, some 50 of whom remain behind bars, were omitted from its overview. The military council also banned the operations of 12 media outlets, forcing hundreds of journalists 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 harboring “all illegal activity”.
He then digressed on the possibility of buying endangered tigers on Facebook in Myanmar.
The only reasonably accurate section was to describe the poor state of the country’s economy, but even that flash of reality was shattered by the final slides which were in stark contrast to almost every independent and professional report coming out of the country. They included statements such as “Terrorism is down and tourism is up!” and “Divestment is down and investment is up again” as well as “Totally safe to travel to Myanmar. More people are becoming aware of fake news and makeshift media.
He placed the economic forecast at a growth rate of three to five percent, a so-called result of a Google Analytics assessment, along with some questionable business 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, saying the attendees – who reportedly included press council representatives from Australia, Indonesia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and from Thailand – had “expressed astonishment at the presentation at the forum over the fake news from Myanmar mentioned in the international media.
It was by no means a measured, alternative analysis of the current conflict dynamics, political and economic realities in Myanmar. Without any basis in evidence or journalistic ethics, it was a regurgitation of military reconstructions of reality, total fabrications and a rejection of mass atrocities; even as subprime propaganda, it was incomplete.
Who is Aye Chan?
According to Burmese business sources, former “journalist” Aye Chan is the son of Soe Thane, former head of the Burmese navy and senior adviser to former President Thein Sein. He 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 with Myanmar Insider online publication. An article under the signature of ‘zhm’ titled “Facebook the Beautiful” and published on August 25 reflected Aye Chan’s presentation at the Dili Forum, almost verbatim. This likely establishes “zhm” as the pen name for Aye Chan (or the MPC member is a plagiarist).
Myanmar Insider’s address is listed at 365 Bogyoke Aung San Road in Yangon, a location that is also home to the city’s first KFC fast food outlet. Sources within the business sector have suggested that Aye Chan may possibly own the property, although official documentation is not available to confirm this.
Several Myanmar Insider articles were cited in the Dili forum presentation, including headlines 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 apparently created by the publication to jointly refer to the NLD, the National Unity Government, the committee representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw and the People’s Defense Forces.
Somewhat incongruously, it features profiles of “digital nomads,” a Bangladeshi non-governmental organization, Nairobi National Park, and criticism of US sanctions against Cuba. Any media-savvy professional wouldn’t have to spend a lot of time scrolling through Myanmar Insider to conclude that it’s 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 place for discussing regional media issues since 2017, in honor of Timor-Leste’s first Press Council which was established a year earlier. The Jakarta office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has been supporting the forum financially since 2018, as it did this year. UNESCO is continuing some of its operations in Myanmar, having recently organized training for monastic and ethnic educators.
It is inconceivable that the current President of Timor-Leste, José Ramos-Horta, knowingly provided a forum for pro-junta propaganda. He has been a strong supporter of the rights and democracy movement in Myanmar for many years and strongly condemned the 2021 coup. While still in opposition last year, he called “vote of shame” the decision of the East Timorese government to abstain from voting on the UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Myanmar regime.
Writing in Newsweek in late 2021, Ramos-Horta argued for increased international action against the junta, calling in particular on Facebook’s pernicious effects in bolstering the military. In early June, he published a report on his presidential website detailing a series of attacks on the Bayingyi community in the Sagaing region – the Roman Catholic descendants of Portuguese mercenaries who settled there in the 17th century. Getting your picture taken next to a prominent atrocities denier was not a good decision.
Organizers of future forums, and all public spaces for the media in Southeast Asia, need to do a much better job of vetting their speakers. Due diligence was absent in Dili. Sadly, there also doesn’t seem to have been much public reaction to Aye Chan’s so-called “facts” from the audience: no Q&A, but he did receive a nice Timorese scarf.
Aye Chan’s presentation at the forum could be seen as an unfortunate anomaly, a mistake that organizers must strive not to repeat. However, there are two main reasons to call for increased regional vigilance to avoid inadvertently providing an audience for military propaganda.
Regional attempts to mediate with Myanmar could be ineffective, mainly due to obstructions by the junta, the five-point consensus of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) floundering and Indonesia being on about to take over the presidency of the regional grouping in January.
The deceptive efforts of Aye Chan and other pro-military propagandists may seem absurd to many. But it is at the risk of those who do not want to take at face value these demands for elections promised in 2023, a peace process that works, relative stability and the discredit of the whole movement. of resistance as “terrorism,” while downplaying growing economic deprivation with false claims of renewed activity.
The second is the accumulation of relatively minor but disheartening international steps or mistakes around the same week as the Dili Forum, small steps that are undermining the morale of beleaguered communities inside and outside Myanmar: a joint letter signed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to “Prime Minister Min Aung Hlaing; Yuka Makino, representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, presenting her credentials to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Military Council; 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 relentless bad news from multiple conflict zones, the currency crash, the rising cost of living, and an unrelenting junta.
Aye Chan’s delivery in Dili was so clumsy that it shouldn’t hurt anything but his reputation. But it is incumbent on the organizers to ensure that their forum is not a vehicle for propaganda for the junta, and to publish a repudiation of the heartless lies being delivered there by a patently disreputable disinformation provider.
David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst on conflict and human rights issues in Myanmar