By any view or measure, Myanmar’s new ruling State Administration Council (SAC) junta has an image problem. The coup-installed regime has gunned down scores of pro-democracy protesters, arrested over 2,000 activists and politicians, shut down media and earned condemnation from nearly every corner of the globe in six short weeks in power.
It’s thus no surprise that the junta has hired a public relations outfit, Dickens & Madson, a firm headed by Israeli-Canadian lobbyist Ari Ben-Menashe, to polish its profile and sell its coup to the outside world. But if the military’s history is a guide, the regime’s self-promotion effort will fall flat in the West and beyond as the nation resumes its pariah status.
Dickens & Madson recently signed a US$2 million contract with Myanmar’s military leadership to promote “the real situation in the country” and to communicate with the United States and other nations which had “misunderstood them”, according to documents filed with the US Justice Department.
The Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, has a long tradition of hiring global PR firms and lobbying outfits to paper over its atrocities and sell a softer, kinder image of its abusive top brass. Few, if any, of those efforts managed to turn US or Western opinion even on the margins in the Tatmadaw’s favor.
Shortly after the military’s 1988 massacre of thousands of anti-government protesters, the generals solicited the services of the notorious Van Kloberg and Associates, an unsavory American lobbying outfit that controversially represented abusive dictators worldwide.
Over the years, successive Myanmar junta regimes hired the services of only slightly more respectable Washington-based public relations outfits, namely Jefferson Waterman International, Bain and Associates and the DCI Group. None of those PR outfits were able to convince US or European decision-makers or lawmakers to roll back punitive sanctions.
It is unlikely that Ben-Menashe’s outfit will be any more successful than those previous firms in turning public and international opinion in favor of Myanmar’s new military dictatorship now being forged in blood and violence, according to sources familiar with the US lobbying industry who spoke to Asia Times on condition of anonymity.
The richly paid spin doctors are already hard at work. Ben-Menashe said in a recent interview that the coup was staged because Aung San Suu Kyi and her now-ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government had moved the country too close to China for the generals’ liking – a bald bid to ingratiate the regime with the Biden administration’s wing of China hawks.
He also said that he had been tasked with contacting Saudi-Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to facilitate the repatriation of more than a million Muslim Rohingya refugees now in squalid camps in Bangladesh, a human catastrophe caused by the Tatmadaw’s brutal “area clearance” operation against the minority that some independent investigators have characterized as “genocide.”
Ben-Menashe was recently quoted by Reuters as saying that “Aung San Suu Kyi, as leader, was the one who did in the Rohingyas, not the army.” Moreover, he and his firm have pledged to prove that the November 2020 election, which the NLD won by a landslide, was rigged – the reason the generals claim they staged their coup. To sell the veracity of that unproven claim will be an uphill battle.
The generals’ geopolitical narrative is also a tough sell. While Suu Kyi indeed turned to China after being shunned by the West in the wake of the Rohingya crisis, the composition of the new, military-installed government shows that the generals anticipated the West would impose new sanctions against their democracy-toppling coup and knew they could as ever rely on Chinese support at the UN Security Council to block any attempt to further punish the generals.
New Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, who held the same post in the previous military-dominated government of ex-general Thein Sein, is known for his pro-China and anti-Western views.
Ko Ko Hlaing, the military regime’s minister for international cooperation, is known to be even closer to Chinese Communist Party. According to a July 23, 2019, Xinhua report, Ko Ko Hlaing gave an interview where he “hailed China’s achievements and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s books on governance as inspiring.”
Ko Ko Hlaing has even translated one of Xi’s books titled “The Governance of China” from English into the main local Bamar language. He is also an official adviser to the Institute for Myanmar Studies at Yunnan University in Kunming.
Ben-Menashe’s lobbying attempts to cast the blame away from the generals for the Rohingya atrocity will be an even harder sell.
Although Suu Kyi controversially traveled to the International Court of Justice in The Hague in December 2019 to reject claims that the atrocities committed against the Rohingyas did not amount to genocide, the systematic killings and burning down of villages were carried out by coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s highly autonomous Tatmadaw. It is he, not she, who stands accused of genocide.
Moreover, few buy into the junta’s election fraud claim considering observers from the US-based Carter Center, the Asian Network for Free Elections and the European Union’s Election Observation Mission all concluded that the poll was held free and fair.
At the same time, Dickens & Madson arguably has its own credibility problems, informed Washington-based critics say. Sources who have scrutinized the documentation Dickens & Madson submitted to the US Department of Justice say there are questions about whether the supplemental statements filed by the firm on their representations provide the required information as to contacts they have made and the information they may have distributed on behalf of their clients.
Their submissions, the sources say, refer only to activities in general and do not contain the details of any contacts, including the names of individuals, dates, means of contact, and issues raised. Nor has any information that may have been distributed apparently been given to the Department of Justice.
Assuming they have made any such contacts or distributed any such information, the Department of Justice would normally expect the specifics to be filed with them. This, the sources say, raises the question about whether Dickens & Madson intends to do actual outreach to US officials on behalf of its new Myanmar military client, or other activities altogether.
Regardless of the junta regime’s actual motives for hiring Dickens & Madson, the generals’ employment of foreign PR firms has historically been highly ineffectual.
A previous generation of Myanmar coup makers associated themselves with the world’s most venal dictators by hiring Van Kloberg and Associates, which also represented Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Liberian coup maker Samuel Doe, Romana’s tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu and Zaire’s dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
Sick and broke, the firm’s founder Edward von Kloberg III committed suicide in 2005 by jumping from the walls of the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome.
Next in the junta’s line was Jefferson Waterman, then headed by Ann Wrobleski who became assistant secretary of state under then-president Ronald Reagan in 1986 and was instrumental in denying Myanmar US anti-narcotics aid following the 1988 massacre.
She then said that Myanmar was unlikely to make progress in fighting narcotics “until a government enjoying greater credibility and support among the Burmese people than the current military regime seated in Rangoon.”
When she left public service and became a PR agent for the generals, she advertised Myanmar as a “beautiful and exotic country” and repeated the generals’ claim that the US had engaged in terrorism by supporting pro-democracy groups outside the country.
Her flipped script efforts, however, did not help the military dictatorship burnish its reputation in the US or elsewhere, nor did efforts by the Atlantic Group, a lobbying group that worked more directly to help overturn US sanctions.
Ben-Menashe is arguably cut from that same lobbyist cloth. A former Israeli intelligence agent, he was arrested in the US in 1989 for violating the law by trying to sell three C-130 Hercules transport aircraft to Iran but was later acquitted, according to reports.
He later worked as a PR agent for Zimbabwe’s strongman Robert Mugabe and Zimbabwe-born drug trafficker Paul Le Roux who after his arrest in the US agreed to cooperate with its Drug Enforcement Administration. He later represented Sudanese warlord Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, whose forces stand accused of crimes against humanity in Darfur in 2014-2015.
Myanmar’s new military regime’s human rights record is deteriorating by the day with the killing and arrests of pro-democracy demonstrators. Videos and pictures circulated on social media of some of those who have been released from detention show they have scarred backs and other signs of torture.
Graphic images of killed protesters show soldiers are aiming their assault rifles for the head rather than body.
It is evident by now that Myanmar’s generals have not learned from the past and will yet again commit resources on feeble and fruitless public relations attempts to justify their violent repression of ordinary, unarmed citizens opposed to their power grab and rule.