Tech firms review Myanmar military-backed ads, junta hires help to 'explain' coup

Google and Viber are reviewing Myanmar military-backed ads in the country following the coup on 1 February. Advocacy group Justice for Myanmar, which is reportedly looking at the army's business interest, discovered that the two companies were running ads for Myanmar telco Mytel which is partially owned by the army, Reuters reported.

Quoting a Google spokesperson, Reuters said the tech giant is reviewing the ads and had separately removed some accounts connected to the military. These included those on Gmail, the Google Play store and Blogger. The spokesperson also said its priority is to help individuals in Myanmar "access information and communicate safely", Reuters said. Last week, YouTube disabled five channels run by state network MRTV and the military-owned Myawaddy Media, Reuters added. MARKETING-INTERACTIVE has reached out to Google for comment.

Meanwhile, Viber said on Twitter that it is looking into the current situation to ensure all ads comply with its guidelines. "While we are conducting this analysis we have decided to stop all advertising in Myanmar," it said. "Viber continues to focus on the most important task - ensuring people in Myanmar continue to communicate freely and securely under the circumstances," the company said.

The latest review by Google and Viber comes after Facebook banned the Myanmar military from using Facebook and Instagram, with immediate effect, as well as ads from military-linked commercial entities since the coup. The bans will remain in effect indefinitely. That said, the ban does not cover government ministries and agencies engaged in the provision of essential public services. This includes the Ministry of Health and Sport, and the Ministry of Education.

"Events since the February 1 coup, including deadly violence, have precipitated a need for this ban. We believe the risks of allowing the Tatmadaw on Facebook and Instagram are too great," the tech giant said in an updated blog post on 24 February.

In the initial blog post published on 11 February, Facebook said it indefinitely suspended the ability for Myanmar government agencies to send content removal requests to Facebook through its normal channels reserved for authorities around the world.

The ban came shortly after the Myanmar government blocked Facebook, Messenger and WhatsApp for "the sake of stability" on 3 February, Reuters reported. Three days later, Twitter and Instagram were blocked and the military junta ordered a blackout of the entire Internet. Since the coup, over 60 protestors have been killed and 1,900 individuals arrested, Reuters said.

Separately in a 4 March blog post, Justice for Myanmar said a Mytel internal forecast shows that profits from its millions of customers in Myanmar are expected to soar this decade. "The military stands to collect enormous sums because it owns more than 28% of Mytel’s shares," it added. The advocacy group also explained that Mytel is a tie-up between the militaries of Myanmar and Vietnam, and the telco "gives Myanmar's generals access to money, technology and data which they can use for military purposes, as well as to prop up their brutal military junta, following an unlawful coup on 1 February".

Hiring lobbyists to explain real situation

Separately, Myanmar's junta is paying an Israeli-Canadian lobbyist Ari Ben-Menashe and his firm, Dickens & Madson Canada US$2 million to "assist in explaining the real situation” of the military coup to the US and other countries, Reuters reported citing documents filed with the US Justice Department.

According to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filing seen by MARKETING-INTERACTIVE, Ben-Menashe, who is the president and director of Dickens & Madson Canada, will represent the junta in Washington to lobby the US, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Israel, and Russia as well as the UN, African Union and international organisations and NGOs. The newly appointed team will also offer other services to assist "the devising and execution of policies for the beneficial development of" Myanmar. FARA requires individuals doing political or advocacy work on behalf of foreign entities in the US to register with the Department of Justice and disclose their relationship, activities, receipts, and disbursements in support of their activities.

Within the US, the filing stated that Ben-Menashe will offer advice and counsel to the foreign principal and advocate before Washington to seek support and humanitarian aid for the benefit of Myanmar citizens and to strive for the removal or modification of current sanctions.

Additionally, he has also proposed to provide media and public relations services to further Myanmar’s goals and activities. 

All of these come as Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party were ousted on 1 February by a military coup and she along with president Win Myint and other senior individuals from the party have been under house arrest since. Protest have erupted across major Burmese cities including Yangon, Mandalay and the capital of Naypyitaw.

Meanwhile, the Myanmar junta is not the only entity to bring on board individuals to manage its public image. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak also previously appointed Paul Stadlen, former MD of APCO Worldwide Malaysia to manage his PR campaigns. According to several media reports in 2018, Stadlen left the country prior to the 14th Malaysian General Elections for unknown reasons. 

Meanwhile, Bell Pottinger UK (now known as Klareco Communications) assisted boutique investment firm Oak Bay Capital in what was reportedly a controversial contract in South Africa that intended to stir up racial tensions. BBC reported that the campaign focused on the power of white-owned businesses and used the #WhiteMonopolyCapital hashtag.

This led to the resignation of founder Lord Bell, the agency being expelled from Public Relations and Communication Association (PRCA) in the UK, and numerous clients such as HSBC cutting ties. According to the BBC, South Africa's opposition Democratic Alliance complained the PRCA that Bell Pottinger had produced a "hateful and divisive campaign to divide South Africa along the lines of race". Following the backlash, Bell Pottinger Asia rebranded to Klareco Communications in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Myanmar to distance itself from the scandal.

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