Myanmar’s junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing arrived at the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Jakarta with justifications for his February 1 coup compiled in a neat document entitled “The Current Political Situation in Myanmar.”
Written in a first-person account redolent of a court case defense summation, the 118-page paper outlines the alleged fraud and corruption at last November’s elections that motivated the coup and subsequent responses by the military, or Tatmadaw.
The military’s electoral fraud allegations had been mounting for months since the nationwide polls, and its insistence that 10.4 million votes were fraudulent is as implausible as when the accusation was aired by military officials days before the coup, which acted to form the State Administration Council (SAC) and topple the National League for Democracy (NLD) government.
The document absurdly uses screen grabs of statements from the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, United States Secretary of State and international media to demonstrate “the election as not free and fair due to ballot rigging”, when the related statements predominantly criticized constitutional provisions preserving Tatmadaw power and the disenfranchisement of Rohingya Muslims.
It also manages to heap blame solely on the NLD for the pre-election cancellations that deprived some 1.4 million people the vote. But it is the document’s self-deluded description of the nationwide protests that erupted in response to the coup and suspension of democracy that is most glaring.
It outlines five stages of progressively severe protest to justify the military clampdown. First, as the junta sees it, there were peaceful protests led by the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). The narrative in this section almost commends protestors for their ingenuity and spontaneity, with several pages of photos of colorful demonstrations.
The second stage, however, is characterized as “riots”, the third stage “anarchistic mobs” and the fourth stage “insurrection”, with alleged provocateurs summarized as “NLD radicalist (sic), destructionists, bad guys…Federal Army idealists.”
The fifth stage slugs the protests as “terrorism…the worst stage ever.” The report outlines the alleged destruction of property with protesters “utilizing immature children as human shield.” It shrilly says “on the pretext of democracy they (NLD and demonstrators) are exercising mobocracy and tyranny of the majority.”
In a picture diagram of the supposed five stages, the document bids to justify the junta’s arrests and use of force to counter “protester actions”, but utterly and blindly fails to document its violent assault on the country and its people over the last three months.
According to the report, the list of casualties includes six dead Tatmadaw with 45 injured and five dead Myanmar Police Force (MPF) with 12 inexplicably “Fall” and 253 wounded.
From February 1 to April 15, it says 64 police stations, the majority in Mandalay, were destroyed by fire. It also claims 62 war or village administration offices, 52 offices, 16 roads, 13 banks, and 105 other buildings were destroyed. Security forces also claim to have seized 3,118 shields, 694 slingshots, 14,183 pellets, 1,114 improvised explosive devices (IEDs), 16 guns, and 4,630 “firebombs.”
Now compare this with the more credible summary of state repression compiled by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which lists 755 protestors killed, 4,496 arrested with 3,448 still detained and an unknown number of casualties nationwide as of April 27.
This contrast in assessments has obviously irked the SAC, with the Ministry of Home Affairs this week threatening AAPP with “severe action” for its contradictory reporting. By any measure, though, contrasting the AAPP’s data with Min Aung Hlaing’s ASEAN-friendly account is an exercise in cognitive dissonance and revelation of the SAC’s inability to generate remotely credible fake news.
The military document also summarizes an ASEAN-appeasing five-part future work plan, which like the previous military regime’s “Seven Step Road Map to Discipline Flourishing Democracy” that preceded it its military-crafted 2008 Constitution, includes a “work in progress” approach that will allow the Tatmadaw to set the tempo and timetables of supposed state-building.
The five stages will include reconstituting the Union Election Commission and establishing correct voter lists; prevention of Covid-19 and a vaccination drive; the recovering of businesses affected by the pandemic; “Restoring Eternal Peace with NCA”, without acknowledging the 2015 ceasefire agreement is already dead; and finally, free and fair multi-party elections.
This section, like a lot of Tatmadaw plans, has a “Waiting for Godot” aspect. In summary, the briefing booklet evokes the metaphor of a student “passed who cheated on his exams” to decry alleged NLD meddling and corruption in the elections.
SAC propaganda also recently referenced the “Harry Tan” incident of 1956, where a seventh-grade student involved in protests was famously shot dead by police, the first student killing of the post-independence era, to perversely besmirch the NLD and its “cheating on democracy.”
Clearly, the SAC is more comfortable in a bygone era than the future as it asserts the current takeover of state power is more like the 1958 military “caretaker government” and therefore not a real coup, a word it has barred harassed local media from using. It has called on the regional bloc for “understanding the root causes and the reality of current situations, and hopes for ASEAN cooperation.”
In sum, the booklet is even more crude, shrill and unnerving than the usual lame efforts that pass for propaganda from the Tatmadaw’s True News Information Team. Rather, it is a slapdash scrapbook with all the hallmarks of a late minute submission than a serious authority seeking regional and global understanding.
Hysterical headlines and highly suspect figures of destroyed property and alleged crimes is an insight not into obtuse authoritarian bluster but sheer self-deception. The SAC issued a statement on Monday suggesting ASEAN “review the information booklet circulated at the meeting before comments are made relating to the current political situation.”
Tatmadaw propaganda has always revealed a tortured relationship with truth, but the report’s justifications for the coup and the one-sided narrative of grievance and violence is a pathological projection of a severe conscience: guilt pours over its crude pages.
The Tatmadaw leadership is likely aware most of their “news” is sheer bunk and largely designed to convince themselves and their rank and file rather than the general population and wider world.
It’s also unclear if the coup confessional is a SAC initiative or the efforts of the US$2 million funded shill Ari Ben-Menashe and his Dickens and Madson public relations firm hired by the junta to launder its global reputation.
The booklet has the legacy blend of previous military regimes’ propaganda in the early 1990s, with an obsession with “evidence” and an assembly of grievances to justify seizing state power from untrustworthy civilian politicians and unruly subjects — all designed to downplay their own extreme violence.
The booklet is useful evidence for the case against ASEAN interventions in Myanmar: it’s akin to submitting inane scribbles and scraps for a final semester assignment at university and expecting the indolent yet corruptible faculty to pass you regardless of the quality.
Clearly, the SAC realizes with cynical acuity that with ASEAN it doesn’t need to make much of an effort; mere attendance makes the grade.
The Tatmadaw also knows the game plan ahead. Indeed, they have confronted these ritualized, regional admonishments before without repercussion. ASEAN will embark on yet another limp, ineffectual engagement strategy, promising dialogue and assistance.
The West and United Nations will sigh relief that their support for ASEAN’s efforts absolves them of anything other than issuing strong statements, imposing a smattering of sanctions and be assuaged that a prolonged dialogue “process” is underway.
Urgently needed humanitarian assistance for millions of people affected by state violence then becomes hostage to these elite maneuvers.
For those in the West who actually do care about the future of Myanmar, this booklet should spark distress that the Tatmadaw is determined to drag the country back into a stone-age dictatorship, with ASEAN as its usher.
That is the real danger of the junta’s disinformation screed. By engaging with the SAC’s justifications for extreme violence, international interlocutors are inculcating the generals’ delusions. ASEAN is, as ever, the preferred prophylactic for Western inaction on Myanmar and is tantamount to selling the nation’s democratic resistance down the river.
David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, peace and human rights issues on Myanmar