Top: File photo of police in Yangon by Timothy Neesam
A heartbroken mother implores her son to desert the army. A sister’s voice tells her brother that she feels unsafe and begs him to stop killing innocent civilians. Fathers warn their children that they are being pitted against one another while the generals sip wine in their mansions.
These are the messages of a psy-ops campaign called Operation Hanoi Hannah, one of many digital fronts opening against the military in Myanmar, whose creators said would be broadcast over pirate radio in hope of persuading soldiers and police to side with the people – and to not rely on the internet, which the authorities ordered shut down yesterday.
“When soldiers and police hear Operation Hanoi Hannah, we want them to feel guilty and uneasy. It is a form of deprogramming and counter brainwashing,” a activist and audio engineer calling himself Bogyoke Yay Khae, told Coconuts Yangon. “We are waging psychological warfare, so they won’t know who to trust. If more people defect from the army, there will be more unease in the ranks.”
Its creators, among new-gen digital cadres bringing the fight to the virtual streets, said they will get their message out using another, lower-tech tool available during any internet blackout: Federal FM, a pirate radio station that can be heard in Yangon over 90.2 MHz.
“Bark Frequencies” from Bark Frequencies by Nway Oo. Released: 2021. Track 1.
Created by a covert group of 20-something artist-activists living in Myanmar, the audio project was inspired by Vietnamese radio personality Hanoi Hannah, whose broadcasts targeted American soldiers in Vietnam. While the original played anti-war songs and read lists of killed and imprisoned GIs, she believed the most effective tool were broadcasts of real Americans sympathetic to the anti-war movement: “Americans will believe their own people rather than the adversary. “Following this logic, Operation Hanoi Hannah dramatizes the inherent contradictions in soldiers and police, who have turned their guns on the innocent civilians they are sworn to protect.
“The soldiers think they are protecting the country, and the people. We are telling them the opposite. Operation Hanoi Hannah will mess them up,” Yay Khae said.
So far, Operation Hanoi Hannah has released eight audio tracks of parents begging their soldier children to desert, siblings calling each other to detail the military’s brutality and short conversations among friends detailing the hypocrisies of the generals benefiting from the ongoing coup.
“Guilt Trip” from Bark Frequencies by Nway Oo. Released: 2021. Track 3.
The vocal performances; which are interspersed with sirens blaring in the background, machine-gun fire and the screams of women and children; are meant to deprogram the soldiers and police officers who have indiscriminately killed at least 583 protestors since the coup began.
“Why are you killing innocent civilians? If I knew this would happen, I would have never let you join the army,” a tearful mother laments between sobs in Bark Frequencies, the first episode in the series.
Meet the Gen Z Generals
Working under pseudonyms, the activists, most of whom are in Yangon, are loosely organized through digital collectives Mahar Insights and SekkuZine, part of the oft-mentioned Generation Z ranks leading the so-called Spring Revolution by storm in the street, both real and digital.
Some have taken on the title of bogyoke, or general, in the spirit of national heroes Gen. Aung San and his 30 comrades, who used noms de guerre in their fight for independence 74 years ago.
In true Gen-Z and millennial fashion, their nicknames are less serious. They include Bogyoke Kauk Swel (Gen. Noodles), Bogyoke San Pyote (Gen. Porridge) and Bogyoke Sin Ye (Gen. Poor). They use the codenames to protect their identities. Some of them don’t even know each other’s identities.
“Wake Up Call” from Bark Frequencies by Nway Oo. Released: 2021. Track 4.
“When they hear a mother on the track, talking about how scared she is and how much she misses her son, that will tap some part of their memories about how their moms bid them goodbye before they left for the front line,” Bogyoke San Pyote said.
“From empathy, you can try to put yourself in their shoes. For them, their weak spots are their families and the people they regard highly like their top generals,” he added.
Formerly creatives and audio engineers, the activists have used their studio skills to create these “propaganda sounds of freedom” to counter the decades of what they call “brainwashing” by the military known as the Tatmadaw.
“Last Dial” from Bark Frequencies by Nway Oo. Released: 2021. Track 5.
To create the tracks, the team brainstormed ways to get into the psyche of the soldiers and their families, found voice actors from their network and edited the results – all done over Telegram, the preferred messaging app under what’s been called Myanmar’s new digital dictatorship.
“I added the sample of crying women and children because whenever the Tatmadaw terrorists start shooting, people are running, screaming in fear, scared children crying, parents grieving when their children die while protesting,” Bogyoke Yay Khae told Coconuts Yangon.
“Beware” from Bark Frequencies by Nway Oo. Released: 2021. Track 6.
Asymmetrical and distributed
Operation Hanoi Hannah is just one example of numerous digital fronts being opened against the Tatmadaw since the Feb. 1 coup. Other efforts include Love Letters From Spring, a digital Lennon Wall collecting stories, notes and letters from the democracy movement.
“Blood On The Leaves” from Bark Frequencies by Nway Oo. Released: 2021. Track 7.
“I believe the merits and power of a digital movement stand on equal footing to its physical equivalent,” said Bogyoke Cho Seint, a graphic designer for Mahar Insights.
Those channels have proven vital since the military regime began imposing nightly internet blackouts, which have steadily escalated to restrict the tools protestors on the ground rely on. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter may be filled with popular support for the movement, but they’ve become widely unavailable since March 15th, especially with mobile data services shut off.
“I think it’s heavily affecting everything. WIFI is not always reliable and it hinders communication, especially with friends and family abroad. The lack of information is the most uneasy aspect of these blackouts,” Cho Seint continued.
During the nightly internet curfews, soldiers have raided civil disobedience participants, student leaders and activists. There have also been reports of soldiers checking social media accounts at checkpoints and confiscating phones.
“There’s a lot of paranoia about using mainstream channels like Facebook and Instagram,” Cho Seint said. People are also generally afraid that their messages or their posts are being watched and tracked.”
In fact, a healthy dose of paranoia might be needed to evade authorities who are now deploying a suite of cyberweapons against protestors, journalists and civil society members.
In the past 10 years, the security forces purchased millions of dollars worth of “dual-use” surveillance technologies from Israeli, European and American manufacturers, all under the guise of democracy, according to the New York Times.
Fears of a China-style firewall peaked mid-February when reports of daily cargo flights between Kunming and Yangon caused pro-democracy activists to raise the alarm about possible Chinese experts being sent to assist the junta. China’s embassy dismissed those concerns, saying the cargo flights only carried “seafood.”
Just prior to Thursday’s junta the junta on Thursday ordered Asked about their contingency plans in the event of a total internet shutdown, Osho, a digital activist assisting in Operation Hanoi Hannah, said that they were making plans to circumvent a total blackout.
“In the event of civil war, cable and phone lines will be cut. We can use satellite phones and WiFi, although these are traceable. The best option is radios. News from different radio channels will be like water then,” Osho said.
That’s where pirate stations like Federal FM come in. It was announced Friday by the General Strike Committee of Nationalities, a main protest organiser, with plans to broadcast news, protest information and updates for the greater Yangon region.
Even as Myanmar enters the third month of continuous protests against military rule, the digital activists seem no less energised.
“We will win, no matter what. In the beginning, I was feeling depressed and angry, scared and excited, all these complex feelings,” Osho told Coconuts Yangon. “This is the last generation that will live under a military regime.”