“Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State. Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.”
Slogans like this –– written in white text on bright red signs the size of billboards –– lined the streets of Myanmar for most of the second half of the twentieth century, when the generals reigned supreme. Warnings of foreign enemies waiting to infiltrate the nation were everywhere: on the street, in state-run media, and in school textbooks. As the nation began to get access to the internet, similar messages were promoted by nationalistic accounts, groups, and pages on social media.
The Myanmar military is known to be xenophobic to the point of paranoia. Under its previous rule from 1962 to 2011, the Southeast Asian nation was kept isolated and economically stunted, as the rest of the world became ever more connected and globalized. During the democratic transition of the past decade, cut short by a coup d’etat this February that has left more than 860 dead, the country and its people have eagerly engaged with the knowledge, connections, and technology that had been kept from them for nearly 50 years.
In the last decade, Myanmar has been flooded with all things foreign, from fast food restaurants to economic advisors. In response, nationalists adopted these new influences and accompanying tools for themselves, promoting conspiracy theories and organizing disinformation campaigns on social media, decrying how these foreign influences were undermining and controlling the nation. The junta is now using these age-old narratives to justify their power grab and discredit those elected to power to a citizenry that is almost universally united against them.
The first people targeted by the junta were elected politicians and notable activists –– the sort of people you expect to be rounded up and jailed when a military decides to take over a country. Once the protests began, strike leaders and protesters also began to be arrested. This was also fairly predictable.
But then they arrested Sean Turnell, an Australian economics professor who was serving as the economic advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the democratically elected government. The regime also targeted people who worked for local chapters of NGOs like the Open Society Foundation, which had been subject to antisemitic, anti–George Soros conspiracy theories for years. An Australian-Canadian couple, Christa Avery and Matthew O’Kane, were also arrested, this time likely for having tenuous connections with Facebook, according to Avery. Pro-military Facebook groups and social media accounts began to recirculate a diagram that surfaced during the 2020 election campaign and purportedly revealed a shadowy cabal of actors working to undermine the vote.
Trying to prove election fraud
The Myanmar military justifies its ongoing coup as a necessary measure to protect the nation from what it alleges was a fraudulent election. But the legal charges levied against Aung San Suu Kyi are far broader, and include illegally importing walkie-talkies, breaching the Official Secrets Act, and corruption.
Dr. Van Tran studies political movements in Myanmar and worked on a team monitoring hate speech and disinformation during the 2020 election. Given the ease with which the military has been able to imprison and use the legal system to keep Aung San Suu Kyi and her party from governing the country, “It’s interesting that they find it necessary to accuse Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy of collaborating with Western organizations or Western political forces to manufacture an election that was unfair and unfree,” Tran told Rest of World.
Among those Westerners the National League for Democracy was accused of collaborating with were Matt, an economist who used to work for a think tank in Myanmar; Xavier, an election observer in the 2020 election; and Almas, a consultant who left Myanmar after the coup, out of fear for his safety. All three requested their names be changed and their organizations not mentioned, fearing retaliation against their current and former organizations and their colleagues.
All three were the subject of a complicated conspiracy theory, mostly spread through Facebook, that tried to place Aung San Suu Kyi at the center of a plot where she accepted bribes through her charitable foundation, in part, to sell Myanmar off to George Soros. Around the time of the 2020 election, articles and videos explaining how everyone was in on this plot — from private school founders to World Bank officials — were published to a military-linked news website and widely shared on Facebook. The website has since been taken down.
Matt told Rest of World that, at the time, “I was barely aware of these conspiracy theories.” He added, “That conspiracy theory was so stupid and so thin that I never gave it much credit when I first heard about it in November. Even now, it’s only resurfaced indirectly, but it does seem like there’s a broader strategy to legitimize their coup by applying multiple discursive pressures, drawing multiple narratives to paint an overall picture of dark murky practices by the NLD government.”
For election observers like Xavier, the suspicion he and his colleagues faced was only mildly concerning while he was carrying out his duties during the November election. Asked if he encountered any issues while observing the election, he said that they were followed by security officials but were not prevented from doing their jobs. “‘There are foreigners around the city. What are they doing? Go and follow them.’ I think that’s pretty standard procedure for the Burmese secret police,” he said of the experience.
In a pattern that seems almost naive now with the benefit of hindsight, Almas also didn’t take the conspiracy and the potential danger posed to those entangled in it very seriously at first. He didn’t even take it all that seriously when the article was published on the military-linked website and subsequently went viral on social media just prior to the election. Reflecting on his thoughts at the time, he said, “The first time I saw this conspiracy, I was outside the country and didn’t really give it too much thought.” Almas came back in time for the election and continued not to be concerned. He said, “The sentiment at the time was quite positive. There were rumors, but no one really thought there would be any issues with the transfer of power.”
But of course there were, and then people began to flee the country.
“We became a research project”
Almas decided to leave at the urging of his Myanmar friends. “The thing with Myanmar is that you never know what you don’t know, and it’s best to always rely on local knowledge. I may think it’s not a big deal, but there are always things that, as a foreigner, you don’t understand,” he said. “I left maybe naively thinking there is no case against me, so I should be fine. But in a coup, reason doesn’t always prevail.”
Almas was able to safely and uneventfully leave Myanmar, but the same could not be said for Christa Avery and Matthew O’Kane. The Canadian-Australian couple were detained at the airport as they were trying to leave Myanmar and were interrogated and kept under house arrest until they were eventually allowed to leave the country.
The couple told Rest of World that the interrogation focused on pictures of a white woman at events about microfinancing, who the security forces kept insisting was Avery –– even though Avery kept trying to point out that they looked nothing alike, apart from their race. (They were shown the picture by the interrogators but don’t know where the pictures are from). Avery said the interrogators also kept asking about how money given to Myanmar and Myanmar organizations from international donors was being used.
“There is a huge gap in their understanding of exactly how the flow of donor money works,” Avery said. “The donors have a strict due-diligence process so that the money does not flow into the wrong hands or get used improperly. It is a risk they take extremely seriously.”
In an amused tone, O’Kane added, “We became a research project. They saw that we were working with donors and a big flow of money, and I had to draw flow diagrams to try and explain to them. They had it in their heads that we were influencing where the money goes and who was receiving the money.”
It is also still unclear why exactly Avery and O’Kane were detained and questioned. Avery’s hunch is that she got on the regime’s radar because she is listed in the company registration documents for a number of international companies in Myanmar, including Facebook, which is not well regarded by the military because the social media giant has banned the military from its platform. But Avery said the reason that she ended up on these documents is due to hard-to-navigate policies that make it difficult for foreign companies to get registered without the help of business consultants.
This sense that security forces were operating with incorrect information was shared by Almas as well. “The first thing that popped out to me is that the diagram is quite outdated. A lot of the people on the list don’t live in Myanmar anymore and don’t work on Myanmar anymore. Whoever made it might have had a good picture of who was providing technical assistance to Myanmar, but this picture would have been from three or four years ago,” he said.
Dr. Tran notes that none of this is a surprise. “The military’s xenophobic narratives have been employed to justify military rule since 1962, and to justify their crackdowns against protestors and activists throughout the decades. This is not a new type of strategy.”
“It’s impossible for us to confirm the intention of the military, but based on the pattern of repression that has followed since the coup, we can say that all these conspiracies are really about helping them maintain political dominance over the country,” Tran added.
The Myanmar military held on to power for decades by using the specter of foreign threats as justification for their often brutal rule. Whether it was fighting British colonialism, Japanese imperialism, communists, or jihadists, the military has always found an “external destructive element” that it needed to protect the country from and to incite fear in the population, and therefore extend its rule.
These conspiracy theories are only the latest iteration of a long-standing pattern. But in an interconnected world where the military can no longer maintain a monopoly on information, people have begun to question the narratives they were fed for decades.