The Economist is at risk of believing the Burmese military's propaganda: A response from DVB on behalf of independent Burmese media

The Economist is at risk of believing the Burmese military's propaganda: A response from DVB on behalf of independent Burmese media

[Image: A woman in Karenni State who, in the absence of US sanctions, could potentially pass customers the Kool-Aid]

Less than a month ago, military spokesperson Zaw Min Tun — who will go down in history as one of the world’s great, and most useless, purveyors of hate speech and disinformation — made an exceptionally rambling speech in which he asked assembled pro-military press why Burma’s independent media was failing to highlight the great atrocities of the NLD, CRPH, and National Unity Government (NUG).

At great lengths, he established various straw man arguments against the long despised VOA, BBC, RFA, DVB etc., chastising independent and foreign media outlets for not picking up on the previous and parallel governments’ failings. Each point was, of course, easily defendable.

He next asked why none of us “ball-lifters” (Burmese for “ass-kissers”) had brought up the case of Yinmarbin PDF’s alleged murder of a number of civilians in Sagaing (DVB English had published on the matter approximately 40 days earlier, and you can read the report here)

Towards the end of his speech, Zaw Min Tun really unloaded. Empowered by a recent visit from Cambodian leaders (who are, supposedly, driving a “peace process” for Burma) he waged war on what is left of Burma’s independent media landscape, saying that the military would now consider the families of those working for banned organisations as enemies of the state, ostensibly legitimate targets for abduction or assassination.

An article, “Myanmar’s resistance is at risk of believing its own propaganda” — gruesomely tagged Pass the Kool-Aid — published in The Economist this week has come under fire for its similar representation of Burma’s independent media groups, framing our work in ways that many feel is unjust. The great fear amongst some still working in the industry (despite omnipresent threats to both our physical and reputational safety), is that the international community may be closing ranks, finding common ground with the mouthpiece of a regime which has, for over sixty years, committed some of the grossest crimes against humanity ever recorded.

The job of a journalist is to report truths as accurately as one can, truths which, despite the wishes of those enjoying the world of wealth and ivory towers, are hard animals to capture in situations of war and great complexity. In such cases, it is sometimes necessary to appeal to others whom, despite potentially good intentions, may miss the nuances of a situation. And, in Burma right now, misreadings and misunderstandings hold the potential to intensify great human suffering.

So, let DVB share its own in-depth response to The Economist. We will start by taking a critical look at the opener:

“To spend time on social media is to think the end is near for Myanmar’s military.” 

This is the straw man exposition which crown’s the Economist’s piece (which, as an aside, experienced Myanmar watchers have referred to in conversation with this correspondent alternately as “shit”, “misguided”, and “a burning desire to sweep the world’s failings on Burma under the carpet”). This claim was an eye-opener for DVB staffers, and I am sure others working in our industry, as absolutely nobody on the team holds this viewpoint… Or, really, anything close to it.

“Resistance groups are slaughtering the army’s men, and occupying the countryside.” 

Well, slaughter is a vague term, and it is particularly difficult to occupy land upon which you already live… unless, of course, said land is considered to be owned by another force — the military, perhaps? People’s Defense Force (PDF) factions and unaffiliated armed groups are universally drawn from, supported by, and broadly lauded by the populations from which they hail.

“The regime is seemingly struggling to conduct basic administrative tasks…”

As a hit job suggesting that Burmese independent media lacks nuance, by taking aim at the one development which has occurred beyond reasonable doubt (the establishment of popular, wide-reaching administrative and civil service institutions), the article opens on very shaky ground.

There is no doubt whatsoever that a functioning military administration has failed to take root since the coup almost everywhere except for the fortified capital of Naypyidaw. Hundreds of personnel appointed to lead the country’s villages and townships since the coup — replacing popular yet unelected admins — have been shot dead. This we know through not only our own civilian journalists (CJs), PDF releases, and sources at crematoriums and morgues, but from the Special Administrative Council (the junta, SAC) itself which claims that in excess of 3-4,000 pro-military civilians, many of whom were at some point administrators, have been executed since the coup. 

DVB has a policy of confirming events (for example the assassinations of those accused of being “dalan” or military informants) by recording soundbites from prominent, verified sources on both sides of the case — i.e. a PDF assassin and a victim’s family member. We have been able to back claims made by resistance groups in quite literally hundreds of cases (and, occasionally, claims made by junta ministries). All of this fact checking is available at the request of The Economist or competing publications.

The military, which has never in the history of Burma provided consideration of, or adequate support for, basic public or civilian infrastructure has, since Feb. 2021, entirely failed to impose institutions to support human beings against social ills. This is not “propaganda” but an undeniable fact, lived by those on the ground.

Instead, Burma’s own people and its civil society organizations (CSOs) — who have filled this support gap for decades — have stepped in. These are, generally, groups led by highly conscientious men and women who have spent the best part of a decade learning international best practice “do no harm” procedures to apply in conflict and poverty hit regions. In contrast, the military cannot run its own school system — enrollment numbers are less than a fraction of what they were before the coup — and its hospitals are closed to anyone suspected of harboring anti-military sentiment, leading to the unnecessary deaths of (likely) tens of thousands of people across Burma blocked from receiving medical care during the COVID-19 crisis. And the economy, well…

Meanwhile, Burma’s Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) is still being observed by hundreds of thousands of striking civil servants.

And do you know why DVB can claim this? Because we sent civilian reporters (of whom DVB retains very very many in country) to school gates, and to hospitals and morgues to count body bags, to speak with coroners and doctors, with students and teachers, and to fact check the situation.

Basic aid provision to IDPs, of whom the military has created hundreds of thousands since the coup, tells a similar story. As after the disaster of Nargis, the junta has arrested, killed, abducted, burned alive, and stolen the supplies of aid workers attempting to reach those in dire need in makeshift camps from Chin State to Karen. 

This is not fantasy, but is documented in daily conversation with CSO workers who can provide the data, photographs, and body counts to support their claims. Now, ASEAN has announced that it wishes all aid deliveries to pass through the military; to dismiss independent media reports and support the military’s claim that it commands any type of administrative plan, or indeed legitimacy, is a dangerous fallacy which, if upheld, could have deadly outcomes for tens of thousands of displaced people.

Energy payments — now so expensive that people are reporting closing businesses and selling vehicles — have been boycotted and subsidized for over a year, with urban residents only returning to the grid after troops were sent to homes, arresting and threatening civilians. Many would consider this fact strong evidence that the military is struggling to conduct basic administrative tasks.

“…or secure any international recognition.” 

Who recognises the regime? It is almost 16 months since the military launched its coup, and the only world leader to have visited Naypyidaw is fellow tyrant, Cambodia’s Hun Sen  — an ex-Khmer Rouge chief upon whom Min Aung Hlaing styles himself. Yet Hun Sen too has shown dissatisfaction with the way in which he is being played by the military. The pro-democracy diplomat Kyaw Moe Tun still holds Burma’s seat at the UN General Assembly, and not one country has sent a replacement ambassador to succeed outgoing mission heads, appointing charges d’affaires to avoid lavishing explicit recognition upon the military. Sanctions and embargoes have been (selectively and unevenly) applied. The only country that has outwardly pronounced support for the military is China; but China would be equally happy to back a NUG (or NLD) government if its forces one day possessed the ability to secure BRI infrastructure projects and mooted modern-day silk roads. In fact, Beijing has even contacted the NUG to discuss such issues. 

“The underground NUG, which leads the resistance”

There are basic fallacies in this sentence which should raise alarm bells. DVB, and no other independent outlet worth its salt, would ever report that the NUG “leads the resistance”. Since the announcement of “D-Day” on Sep. 7 2021, multiple resistance groups have sprung-up across the country. The CRPH formed directly after the coup, as did the NUCC, a catch-all group from which the NUG derives its legitimacy. EAOs have fought, or attempted to find common ground with, military representatives for decades, leading their people with unswerving command.

Burma’s Spring Revolution has, from its outset, been suspicious of leaders — it is an uprising premised on a shared hatred of the military and the necessity to remove it from public life. Talk of federal democracies and broad-based coalitions are only one side of the story. Burmese have learned from past mistakes of proclaiming leaders, of centralizing in cohesive bodies only to present themselves directly to the junta. Any decent reporting on a resistance group will go some way to establish whether it has proclaimed links to the NUG and whether it has received funding from the parallel government (as DVB frequently notes, very few of these groups actually have done so, and are extremely forthcoming in requesting it while criticizing the NUG’s overly confident and all-embracing outward statements of support). When a group does claim allegiance to the NUG, reasonable doubt has also been applied.

“Has claimed that the anti-junta forces control half the country…”

If you consider the decades-long experiences of the KIO, KNU, the Chin lands, and various other semi-autonomous regions (teamed with the numerous and well documented examples of newly established independent schools, judicial structures, and security apparatus set up since the coup in areas previously ungoverned by groups hostile to the military), the NUG’s recent claim, although maybe overly confident in scope, holds truths which are backed by well-supported reporting from the ground. It is undeniable that the military’s administrative grip on Burma has never been weaker.

DVB regularly checks in with sources: families whose children attend new “people’s” schools; PDFs and civilian police forces prosecuting drug busts and staging trials; those constructing hospitals run by CDM staff. Such interactions, instead of inflating a biased perspective, have aided independent media by providing access to, and understanding of, the role of “people’s administrations” (PAFs or PATs as they are alternatively known), operated by armed groups in conjunction with local CSOs and CDM leaders. This is all documented, and supported with sources, and we have no reason, after using our naturally endowed critical faculties, to believe that news we receive is biased or tainted due to PAF’s links to PDFs — there is a gaping void in civil society which is being filled, piecemeal, by popular civilian groupings. You can read more about these, with links to work produced, in a report DVB published to mark one year of the failed coup.

All such reporting has done is to confirm the impression that PAF’s are succeeding — not only in areas of Sagaing, Chin, Karen, Karenni (and even greater Yangon) — and are mushrooming as the junta fails to spread its resources wide enough to forcibly subjugate areas violently resisting its institutions. Those running these new civil functions are indeed outgunned and precariously positioned, yet they are teaching children, treating the sick and elderly, and upholding diehard anti-military stances whilst doing so. Ask the Arakan Army leadership — now claiming almost half of the state and establishing functioning judiciaries, administrations, and healthcare provision — how they would consider their group’s position before and after the coup. The AA’s story has been developing since 2018, it is true, but never before would those living in the Bamar heartlands have imagined that they too would one day be able to proudly present similar examples of independence, certainly not just one year since the formation of a coherent anti-military armed movement.

The Economist’s argument, as presented, appears to suggest that the military is firmly in control of the country primarily due to its control of the jade trade. Something — as Mandalay and Kachin researchers will tell you— is only partly true, and that the “anti-regime groups are fragmented” — as if this division is currently a weakness. 

Atomisation is a key tenet of guerilla warfare. From the early days of Burma’s urban protests, impromptu organizers advised those taking to the streets not to follow leaders, to alternately divide and ally to stop the military from infiltrating entire command structures (a rule the NUG itself, if the military is to be believed, failed to adhere to when its own Yangon Region Military Command was infiltrated, leading to the arrests of over 100 people — an event covered by Burma’s independent media outlets in minute detail, contrary to sweeping accusations made by The Economist).

A PDF leader, whom The Economist cites, complains that only 20% of his men can currently be armed. The outlet does note, however, that he has 2,000 men under his command. And that there are multiple PDF factions per township. Does that not sound as though a lot of people are still willing to fight for the cause?

The PDF’s lack of weaponry, correctly noted by The Economist, is something everyone — from journalists, to CSO workers, to NGOs, international governments, and the man in the tea shop — knows. Independent media, when reporting on PDF “retreats”, as the magazine puts it, reflects this reality, and other concerns, almost daily. Such reporting helps us raise targeted awareness for fundraisers and aid groups who are doing tireless and vital work behind the scenes. But, The Economist, should poorly armed youths be convening on armored tank divisions with second-hand carbines and homemade muskets like a scene from Saving Private Ryan, or conduct low-intensity, high-impact attritional guerrilla warfare? In quite a few cases, groups have caused entire Burma Army battalions to retreat due to the intelligent use of IEDs and ambush — should this be ignored?

There is no glory when children, lacking the support of international nations, are sent out to fight a professional army. But ask those who are actually living the coup and they will describe to you their perceived alternative: enslavement, arbitrary arrest, murder, displacement, rape, the loss of livelihoods and families: issues that Burma’s independent media outlets put a premium on reporting.

Finally, we reach the (unreferenced, unnuanced) crux of The Economist’s piece: “Many of these outlets reproduce the claims of resistance groups. Their narrative of imminent victory is embraced on social media.”

DVB has certainly not ever “embraced a narrative of imminent victory”, in fact, much of the work on our website and social media channels has merely aimed to highlight the harm that international actors do when embracing an opposing narrative which supports a genocidal military that has zero popular support, and, indeed, sparse external economic and diplomatic options. We see great progress made by resistance groups, at great cost, yet do not consciously act as “cheerleaders” for them. 

The reason being: PDF reports are greatly problematic, as Cape Diamond, quoted in the piece, rightfully points out. This is not a new revelation, something just now discovered by The Economist. There can be found — inevitably for a situation where emotions against the military are so high — biases amongst civilian journalists reporting from the ground in the face of devastation. This should not cast doubt on the civilian journalist process as a whole — these are still trained individuals with an understanding that excluding unfortunate facts relating to the failings of the revolution may actually be harmful to the resistance movement as a whole — and the criticism also discounts any discernment or critical thinking shown on behalf of editors compiling reports off the back of their valiant work.

Outlets, such as DVB, will put disclaimers where figures and facts cannot be independently verified, which is often the case. When PDFs began reporting huge soldier casualty numbers from Burma’s northwest (around late September last year) such claims were greeted by independent media with universal skepticism — the only people you will find endorsing this “propaganda” (and likely only half-heartedly, based on unregulated social media accounts) are Burma’s netizens: receptive for any good news in an increasingly desperate environment. 

Our best guesses are that PDF groups early on overestimated the strength of their IEDs, providing casualty numbers based on a prediction of troop numbers traveling in certain convoys which had been hit, something that has always been highlighted in our reports. Supporting this idea, PDFs now very rarely report mass casualty numbers in the field from convoy attacks, instead providing imagery and evidence to back claims of deaths and attacks on infrastructure.

Groups such as the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners and Myanmar Witness are now driving intricate groundwork partially based on reports provided by independent media. These groups err on the side of caution as a matter of professional decency, using tools — OSINT, personal verification, and other technical means — to make sure that none of us are misled as to the actual situation in Burma. And — guess what — their findings, which often understate military atrocities and closely reference stories provided by CJs and PDFs — are increasingly verifying huge numbers of claims reported from the ground.

And why does this feedback loop between CJ, independent media, and forensic fact-checker exist? To promote current awareness leading to real-world action; to record a tragedy so others can learn from posterity; and, most crucially, to guarantee that, when the country’s war criminals finally face The Hague, lawyers will be armed to the teeth with evidence to fight for the memory of each individual life that has been torn apart, over decades, by the Burmese military.

PDF press releases are also good guidance on other issues, and this is the way in which we have seen independent media use them most effectively; reports help us understand where the military is moving, what it plans next, which groups are suffering, and how resistance groups (who, bear in mind, began as protestors armed with plastic shields) are developing strategies and advanced weapons systems to counter brutal repression. 

In this way, PDF groups who work actively with independent media have established a large degree of mutual trust — and, hopefully, the process works both ways, with groups being further encouraged to accurately represent conflicts, body counts, needs, wants, and fears. The international media must bear in mind that these groups are operated by young men and women — many traumatized by what has happened to their country and their hometowns — experiencing their first taste of warfare and its fog and ambiguities. Many of these sources before the middle of 2021 lacked the knowledge to fire a rifle let alone accurately report, on-demand, minutiae from warzones.

In many ways, it seems as though this virtuous cycle is now forming. Many EAOs have a long held policy of refusing to comment on casualties in battle similar to that held by the military, whose statistics (on everything from domestic rice consumption to the drug money laundered through their restaurants and clubs) are up for debate. However, DVB has, since the start of this new year, been granted information allowing us to report numerous occasions where PDF bases have been overrun by the military; where entire platoons of PDF operatives have been arrested or massacred; where weaponry destined for resistance groups has been intercepted; where EAOs have expressed disagreements with PDFs under the NUG structure with regards to the operation of independent regional bureaucracies; where pro-military family members have been executed; where EAO commanders have been killed in battle; and entire areas deep in liberated regions — i.e. the Lay Kay Kaw peace village — have been invaded and successfully held by the military: If our audience got a trip out of DVB “passing” this “Kool-Aid”, we do apologize — that was not our intent.

It is, and always has been, a bleak and complex picture: We can guarantee that Kool-Aid is neither being served nor imbibed in DVB’s offices. Despite the bad news, optimism remains high amongst “Myanmar’s resistance” not only due to the public’s recourse to news from independent media outlets and civilian journalists, but due to other structural shifts, something that The Economist is likely also aware of.

The actions (and statements) of the military itself suggest that it has not faced such an all-encompassing existential dilemma since its formation. We have received leaked reports of regional commanders expressing unprecedented losses and questioning military strategy; of all varieties of people — from pensioners to wives and children — being dragged into ad hoc military service in the face of miniscule recruit numbers; of attacks in parts of the country — central Yangon, Naypyidaw — previously untouched by organized armed violence; of the SAC’s difficulty in gathering tax payments and operating its extractive nexus. 

On top of this, a growing number of multinational firms have withdrawn from Myanmar — even those who chose not to following the events of 1988. Doubt is even expressed over these claims where necessary, but it is clear there is an unprecedented opportunity for Burmese citizens to free themselves of the yolk of repression: something to be highlighted and not downplayed despite the (real) chance that the military may indeed prevail through sheer brute force and impunity granted by many in the international community.

The goal of independent media worldwide is to highlight gross injustice and suffering forced upon innocent human beings. The plight of Burma’s people has, and always will be, the cause super omnia of the country’s independent outlets, who operate under some of the world’s most pressing working conditions with some of the most obstructed and obscure information flows. The current conflict isn’t — as many jaded and partial observers would wish it to be — a dichotomy; it is not a moral choice between A and B, but a stark and rare example where media is reporting on a group of desperate and self-empowered people who (on the whole) are giving up their past lived existences to fight a force of undeniable, unspeakable evil. 

There are many actionable points for the international community to work with in this brave new situation Burma finds itself in; dismissing reports as “propaganda” is unhelpful, and perpetuates suffering that could be lessened if those in power chose instead to listen to the voices of those affected by the conflict. There’s simply never been a more useful time to heed, and not dismiss, the calls of the Burmese people.

Reporting with (critical) recourse to the country’s (far more) reliable anti-military groups — namely; the NUG (which is in no way spared criticism by independent media, and rightly so), EAOs, the PDF, the country’s CSOs etc. — allows us to more accurately portray the real tragedy occurring in Burma: the land clearances, the arbitrary killings, rapes, appropriations of property, and the huge displacements that are increasing, and occurring at rates incomprehensible to most people. All of us are guilty of (unintentionally) overlooking or underplaying certain events — but only due to our focus on consistently pushing the bigger picture, and in no way due to intentional bias. The Economist, to its credit, does dwell on the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the country, and the PDF’s unequal access to weaponry; yet this should not be conflated in an article which glibly accuses a nation undergoing unspeakable tragedy of drinking “the Kool-Aid”.

Come to DVB offices (if you can find them) and speak to our senior reporters: more often than not, you will hear terms such as “stalemate”, “potential failed state”, and “nuance”, bandied about. Our work is critical: DVB was born in a similar environment in 1988 — the organization knows that unquestioning support of nascent armed groups does not work to anyone’s favor. But you will also hear, from a group of men and women who have studied and worked with Burma intimately for thirty years and now again face exile, that the opportunity for Burma’s people to finally put an end to their torture and extortion at the hands of the junta has never been greater. 

If there is positivity evident in the reporting of Burma’s independent media outlets, this is the reason. But nobody is under the illusion that this is: a) a clearcut conflict between two balanced combatants; or b) that victory (whatever that may look like in a southeast Asian revolution in 2022) is “near” or even achievable in the current situation. Individual reports of resistance victories should be rightly promoted given the military’s unparalleled history of brutality: they will continue to be presented critically and as part of a broader picture, but promoted all the same.

In the same way, the failings, crimes, and shortcomings of all those involved in Burma’s Spring Revolution will be analyzed lest Burma is to continue to suffer under the unaccountable abuse of force that has crippled its development for decades.