Who is the Myanmar regime’s apologist, Ko Ko Hlaing?

(Right) Myanmar regime’s Minister for International Cooperation U Ko Ko Hlaing at the ICJ in The Hague. (Left) A caricature of U Ko Ko Hlaing by Myanmar’s late revolutionary cartoonist Harn Lay, after people contemptuously called him “Frog and Fish Catcher Ko Ko Hlaing” or “Candle Ko Ko Hlaing”.

By The Irrawaddy April 28, 2022

Few people in the West or even in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) know who is who when it comes to Burmese junta ministers. But one minister they should know is U Ko Ko Hlaing, as he is the military regime’s minister for international cooperation and the junta’s go-to man for dealing with the international community.

U Ko Ko Hlaing is also Chairman of the Working Committee on Oversight of United Nations (UN) Agencies and International Non-Governmental Organizations in Myanmar. Additionally, he is the head of the Humanitarian Aid Task Force, meaning the 65-year-old oversees international aid efforts in Myanmar. Recent visitors include David Carden, the UN’s deputy humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar. As if those jobs weren’t enough, in February the former lieutenant colonel also led Myanmar’s defense at the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands against allegations of genocide committed by Myanmar’s military.

Furthermore, he was among the few people that ASEAN’s special envoy for Myanmar, Prak Sokhonn, met during his stay in Myanmar last month. The envoy discussed humanitarian aid issues with U Ko Ko Hlaing. He impressed the Special Envoy’s delegation with his kindness and his 75-minute long discussion with the Special Envoy was hailed as fruitful.

But what foreign visitors don’t know is that U Ko Ko Hlaing was a fervent apologist not only for this military dictatorship, but also for the previous one. It is infamous among Myanmar locals, many of whom contemptuously refer to it as “Frog and Fish Catcher Ko Ko Hlaing” or “Candle Ko Ko Hlaing”. Looking at his career, it’s easy to see why.

The Myanmar regime’s Minister for International Cooperation, U Ko Ko Hlaing, meets David Carden, United Nations Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar. /MOFA-Myanmar

Junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing has appointed a number of ministers and advisers who previously served in U Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government. U Ko Ko Hlaing, who served as U Thein Sein’s main political adviser, is one of them.

He is also a confidant of the former dictator, Chief General Than Shwe. U Ko Ko Hlaing is an 18th class graduate of the Defense Services Academy, and he and two of his classmates are said to be regular visitors to Than Shwe’s residence in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyitaw.

One such classmate is U Than Htay, the current Chairman of the Army Proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party. The other is retired Lt. Gen. Wai Lwin, who served as defense minister in U Thein Sein’s administration and organized pro-military rallies in Yangon before Min Aung Hlaing’s coup. on February 1, 2021.

U Ko Ko Hlaing did not hold high military or civilian posts in Than Shwe’s regime, unlike his two classmates, but he played an important role in the regime’s propaganda efforts as a writer and searcher. In 2004, he resigned from his position as lieutenant colonel of the research department of the Ministry of Defense and was transferred to the Ministry of Information.

Under Information Minister U Kyaw Hsan in the government of the State Council for Peace and Regime Development, he served as an adviser to the Ministry of Information, often publishing pro-military books as well as newspaper articles.

U Ko Ko Hlaing

One of his most notorious stories was about Cyclone Nargis, which in May 2008 swept through the Ayeyarwady region and southern Myanmar, killing more than 138,000 people and destroying and damaging some 750,000 buildings. Immediately after the worst recorded natural disaster in Myanmar’s history, U Ko Ko Hlaing, writing under the pseudonym “Hlaing Aung”, wrote that Shwedagon Pagoda – Myanmar’s holiest Buddhist site – could now be clearly seen from away and revered with ease, thanks to Nargis who felled so many trees in Yangon.

At the time, U Ko Ko Hlaing lived near Shwedagon Pagoda in Bahan Township. But as he enjoyed the view of the Shwedagon from his home, hundreds of thousands of residents of the hard-hit Ayeyarwady region were left homeless by Nargis and struggled without food or shelter amid the corpses of decaying humans and animals.

To make matters worse, U Ko Ko Hlaing argued in his article that since the Ayeyarwady region is rich in fertile soil and water resources, its broken inhabitants might catch frogs and fish to eat with the vegetables growing in it. the region. Defending the Than Shwe regime’s xenophobic refusal to allow international aid to Myanmar, U Ko Ko Hlaing said the meals he suggested were tasty and nutritious and more than enough to enable the Nargis refugees to survive, they therefore did not need chocolate bars donated by the international community.

The article was published in the regime-run English-language newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, and drew hordes of derogatory remarks from local and international readers.

Despite this, U Ko Ko Hlaing continued to be favored by the generals, and in 2011 was appointed Chief Political Advisor to President U Thein Sein. Later, his wife Daw Thida Tin was transferred from the Ministry of Education to the Ministry of Information. She is currently Deputy Director General of the Information and Public Relations Department.

From being a propagandist who dared not use his real name and was told what to write by the military regime, U Ko Ko Hlaing became an important figure as a presidential adviser. But his old habit of defending the boss he served was far from over.

When Myanmar experienced long and frequent power cuts in 2014, U Ko Ko Hlaing again sparked controversy by saying, “I mean willingly. Why don’t you turn off the lights and light candles in your house? Everything will be fine then. »

After U Thein Sein’s government lost the 2015 general election to the National League for Democracy (NLD), U Ko Ko Hlaing left Naypyitaw to serve as an adviser to the Myanmar Studies Department of the University of Yunnan in Kunming, China. From there, he criticized the NLD government’s handling of Chinese investments and was personally engaged in promoting the interests of Chinese companies in Myanmar.

He returned to Naypyitaw when Min Aung Hlaing appointed him Minister for International Cooperation. U Ko Ko Hlaing is only a year older than the coup leader, graduating from the Defense Services Academy in 1977, a year after U Ko Ko Hlaing became an officer.

U Ko Ko Hlaing continued his propaganda efforts for his new boss, doing his best to cover up the regime’s human rights abuses. After scores of people died in July and August last year due to the regime’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, he wrote a number of articles blaming striking health care workers and Western countries for not providing vaccines.

“I don’t want to complain, but I have to. Western countries that have long said that Myanmar is on the brink of collapse due to COVID-19 and urgently need international help have yet to provide a single dose of COVID-19 vaccines. The US$350 million lent by the International Monetary Fund to address the COVID-hit economy was part of the US$1 billion frozen by Uncle Sam. Nearly $300 million in loans long pledged by the Bank Asian Development Bank and the World Bank for Population Health and Agriculture have been blocked in the name of sanctions,” he wrote in junta-controlled newspapers.

Earlier this year in February, in another sign of the regime’s confidence in him, U Ko Ko Hlaing was chosen to lead the defense of the Burmese military before the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands against allegations of genocide. .

In short, if you mention International Cooperation Minister U Ko Ko Hlaing to any ordinary citizen of Myanmar you meet, you will see the bewilderment on their faces as they have no idea who he is. But if you try “Frog and Fish Catcher Ko Ko Hlaing” or “Candle Ko Ko Hlaing”, they will answer: “Yes, the minion of the regime”.

The international community must also be aware that the façade of “friendly” minister U Ko Ko Hlaing hides a longtime apologist for military dictatorships.

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