Written by U Ne Oo on 2001-05-14

"The nature of the dictators is that they want to wash our brains. To reverse this situation, we must be industrious to build up our brains with knowledge and ideas. They want to empty our brains. We shouldn't accept their aims. On the contrary, we have to build up our unity and assist each other. Unity alone can overcome the junta's brainwashing method." -- U Win Tin, Journalist and POC .

Just a couple of days ago, a colleague forwarded to the BurmaLists a moving article about U Win Tin, renown journalist and a prisoner of conscience. The article has been written by a former inmate of U Win Tin and originally published in Irrawaddy Newsmagazine. I was inspired by the article which describing the detail on how the inmates, despite obvious difficulties, have tried to gather political information and, then, shared amongst themselves in form of a network. The article also described how a group of prisoners have managed to send a report to UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur even under the most severe restrictions. The article was occasionally highlighted by very important note from U Win Tin, ".. unity (solidarity) alone can overcome the brainwashing (adversity)..". This quote is particularly relevant for all of us who striving for Burma democracy in various circumstances because now a days we have been confronting with rather new and sophisticated opponent.


Since late 1998, the Burmese junta appears to have changed its tactic in engaging with the outside world and domestic opponents. It does appears mere accidental that the change in the SPDC's tactics are coincided with the emergence within international circle of so-called "Chilston Group". The Chilston Group seems to be made up of academics and middle-ranking diplomats who are of political light-weights nevertheless have good contacts.

To my observation, the Chilston Group did not make any contribution in ways of pressuring junta to create an environment conducive to a dialogue in Burma. Rather, it appears finding a way to strike middle ground, whatever that would means, between democracy movement and junta. This stance is rather absurd because the ultimate aim of Burmese democracy movement and NLD is to negotiate with the ruling military junta. In this respect, the Chilston Group's intention of seeking a compromise by the democracy movement without pressuring SPDC is flawed from the outset.

While Chilston Group tried to play around with words to strike some deals amongst political forces in Burma, the SPDC stepped up its campaign to improve its image abroad. The improvement in the presentation of SPDC can be observed in its conduct with UN/ILO (example: Burmese Minister of Labour letter to ILO-DG on 11/2/2001). Publication such as Myanmar Times -with editorial assistance from foreigners - has also been established to polish its international image. It is evident that a group of "hired guns" being used by the Office of Strategic Studies (OSS), Burmese junta's military intelligence wing, to counter declining trend in its international public relations. In comparison to former Burmese foreign minister U Ohn Gyaw, his successor U Win Aung is also more media savvy and approachable by the press.

In sum, we - the democracy movement - are now facing Burmese junta that is assisted by people with sophisticated public relation skills. In addition, our campaign to mount more pressure on SPDC has also been hampered by un-cooperative governments which effectively shielded their inaction for by un-named and un-accountable Chilston Group.


The governments in this world, of course, routinely justified on national interests whenever there's a need to be taking action or non-action in case like Burma. The truth, however, is that the governments react mainly on self preservation or political laziness. As such, we must always prepare to deal with the inaction by the governments.

Concerns arose in last few months, however, was that some of our colleagues within democracy movement - Burmese exiles as well as foreigners - appears too accommodating to SPDC/SLORC's "Good News" propaganda. Whilst it is nothing wrong to have such optimism - after all, we do need to be optimists to continue in the struggle - it is more healthy to build up our capacity to analyse news to counter SPDC/SLORC's propaganda. There are certain dangers in believing into the "Good News" such as 'secret-talk' being held by junta and Aung San Suu Kyi.


At the policy level, the "Good News" may provide the lazy governments a rationale to justify for their inaction on Burma. At the more individual level, the "Good News" will make activists more inattentive to the issues on Burma. At analytical level, when reporters skillfully slanted their writing in a positive (negative) tone, the greater difficulty for average readers to judge political contents of the article. In such cases the activists will have to use more time and energy to analyse the content and carefully counter the propaganda.

To my observation, the Burmese junta has not fundamentally changed in its conduct with the opposition nor in its practices on human rights. What is changed is the tone of junta responding to the outside world. We can take the forced labour issue as an example. In U Ohn Gyaw's era, the junta simply made a total denial about the existence of the forced labour in Burma. Nowadays, junta in someway admits there is forced labour exist but said, as any responsible government, to be doing "something about it". This can be seen as a kind of tactic used to soften the international community's concern. Following are few tricks by which Burmese junta used to manufacture "Good News".

A. Secret Negotiation: In last few months, we have witnessed how SPDC has managed to avoid incessant attacks by activists and stalled action of UN Organisation by using the 'secret negotiation'. For some part, this SPDC's tactic is exploiting Burmese mentality of putting total trust on Aung San Suu Kyi and the "Responsible authorities", expecting that they will do the right things.

In order to counter that trend, grassroots activists must be prepare to bare the psychological burden, instead of investing all our hope upon ASSK and UN, for an emergence of a genuine negotiation toward democracy. In other words, the grassroots activists must keep a total awareness and continue examining the issues related to Burma. This may be difficult for some people because the sense of powerlessness at the grassroots level combined with the desire for political change to Burma can cause a psychological pain. The grassroots activists must be strong minded to overcome such mental pain. On the one hand, solidarity within the movement may also help ease such a pain.

B. Token release of prisoners: When public pressure is mounted on SPDC to do something, it may release a numbers of prisoners. The rest of its contact - through OSS's hired guns -- will do publicity job. International mass media have their own agenda and usually inaccessible to the activists. But, we can see on occasion that the mass media can write "Good News" stories, favouring Burmese junta as somewhat mis-understood in the international circle. We must also carefully counter this trend. A blunt point of fact is that many of political prisoners in Burma, such as U Win Tin, would have never been in jail in the first place. One can give a praise to but the junta deserves no credit for releasing the political prisoners.

C. Internal Division as Excuse: It is commonly assumed that there 'exists' a division within the junta. In this story line, General Maung Aye usually play as a villain (hard-liner) and General Khin Nyunt, not surprisingly, plays as prince (moderate). The truth, however, is that General Khin Nyunt is equally inflexible as any other hard-liners in dealing with opponents ( note: the OSS has to promote their boss as a moderate). In recent weeks, news comes out that the 'secret negotiation' stalled due to 'internal division' between junta. The activist community should not be held back on taking action on junta simply because of the so-called 'internal division'.

D. Other form of diversion: When the junta is cornered into negotiating with its opponent or forced to give certain concession, it may turn into diversionary methods. Race riot in Arakan state being one good example. Or, with recent conflict with the Thais, the Burmese army might dare taking action on the Thai army just as a diversion.


To my view, the grassroots networks like these BurmaLists, including soc.culture.burma, are best equipped to fight the junta's propaganda. There have been a pool of talented people within these networks who can analyse the content of news. What is needed is the people to take some more time and commitment to make rebuttal on the junta's propaganda. Respected journalists like U Win Tin and Uncle Kyemon U Thaung have already set the standard on how to "fight" military dictators. As for Burmese activists, our agenda might be a little broader than journalists, but certainly can take inspirations from these living marvels.

Regards, U Ne Oo.

Burmese junta and its new face mask