Pro-military think-tank hosts American anti-Muslim activist at Yangon forum

By MRATT KYAW THU | FRONTIER

YANGON — A Tatmadaw-linked think-tank has hosted a panel discussion on Rakhine State featuring a controversial American activist whose anti-Muslim views have made him popular with Myanmar nationalists.

Mr Rick Heizman was one of three panelists, together with prominent Rakhine nationalist Dr Aye Chan and researcher U Maung Maung Nyein, at this morning’s event organised by the Thayninga Institute for Strategic Studies.

During the one-hour discussion titled “The Hidden Reality of Rakhine Situation behind the Media Mask” and held at Novotel Hotel, speakers took turns to accuse international and local media of being biased in their coverage of the Rakhine crisis and favouring the Muslim Rohingya over the Rakhine.

“No international and even local media reported the truth about [Rakhine],” said Than Aye, who was described as a researcher. As evidence to support this, he noted that many diplomats and international media outlets had been invited to the event but few attended.

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Frontier saw only two foreigners thought to be from foreign embassies in the audience.

Heizman, an ethnomusicologist living in San Francisco who has visited Myanmar over several decades, regularly engages in anti-Rohingya and broader anti-Muslim speech on Facebook and Twitter. His heated rhetorical style and frequent use of capital letters over entire paragraphs in online posts has not deterred the Myanmar government from endorsing his explicitly anti-Muslim work in previous communication with foreign governments and organisations.

As Frontier reported in September, Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent United Nations agencies and at least one foreign aid group working in Myanmar weblinks to a recent film by Heizman that claims Rakhine State is the target of an Islamic plot to destroy Buddhism.

Key material in the four-part documentary, “Arakan: Ancient Buddhist Kingdom Endangered by Jihad”, was drawn from interrogations of Rohingya Muslims suspected of being members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

Asked at the panel discussion how the movie was financed, Heizman said it “completely come out of my very thin pocket”. “I did everything for the democracy… for the film itself, I filmed it, I edited it, the equipment, everything was my money.”

He added, “I wish I had funding, but I didn’t.”

Heizman is the first US national to speak at an event organized by Thayninga, which typically holds such panels twice a year.

Thayninga executive director U Naing Swe Oo told Frontier he was aware of the criticisms of Heizman’s work but noted that it was “really rare [for a foreigner] to take this side”.

“Some facts from him [Rick Heizman] are accurate,” Naing Swe Oo said.

In attendance were former vice president U Nyan Tun, now a Pyithu Hluttaw lawmaker for the Union Solidarity and Development Party, and former Rakhine State Chief Minister U Maung Maung Ohn, who holds a Rakhine State Hluttaw seat for the USDP, as well as a large number of Rakhine nationalists and Tatmadaw supporters.

Thayninga was formed by U Naing Swe Oo in 2017 and emerged from a defence magazine launched two years earlier.

A former Tatmadaw captain who studied in Russia before resigning in 2014, Naing Swe Oo told Frontier in an earlier interview that he wanted Thayninga to build “a bridge between the Tatmadaw and the people”.

He has insisted that Thayninga’s founders invested their own money in the institute and that it received no financial support from any organisation, including the Tatmadaw.

By Mratt Kyaw Thu

By Mratt Kyaw Thu

Mratt is a Senior Reporter at Frontier. He began his career at Unity Weekly Journal in 2010 and focuses on political reporting. In 2017 he won the Agence France-Presse Kate Webb prize for his coverage of ethnic strife in Myanmar.
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