These Myanmar Coders Built a Website To Spread Anti-Military Propaganda

“Operation Hanoi Hannah” brings Vietnam War-Era tactics to modern Myanmar.
April 9, 2021, 4:35am
Myanmar soldiers
Soldiers stand guard as they block a road near a prison in Myanmar capital Naypyidaw on February 15, 2021, after the military seized power. Photo: STR / AFP

Air raid sirens blare, a machine gun starts firing, and the wails of women and children can be heard before an emotional plea begins in Burmese.

This is the disturbing opening of one of eight audio files downloadable from a new website called Operation Hanoi Hannah. The tracks, which feature a mix of voice work, music and real-world sounds, are intended to be “psychological warfare against terrorist dogs that mercilessly kill the civilians of Myanmar,” the site description reads, referring to the military.

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The generals who seized power on Feb. 1, ending a decade of quasi-civilian rule, have tried to put down nationwide demonstrations with traditional methods: brute force. At least 600 people, including dozens of children, have been killed since the coup. Authorities have also imposed widespread internet restrictions, limiting the amount of information about abuses that can be shared online.

But a young generation of globally-connected coders, engineers and artists are giving protesters a new set of digital tools to push back as the standoff stretches into a third month.

Named after Trịnh Thị Ngọ, the North Vietnamese radio broadcaster who taunted and attempted to demoralize American soldiers during the Vietnam War, Operation Hanoi Hannah involves an unknown number of people affiliated with Myanmar’s protest movement who spoke to VICE World News on the condition that they could use their noms de guerre. They are loosely affiliated with two youth collectives, Mahar Insights and SekkuZine.

Bogyoke Khout Swel—which translates to General Noodles—is responsible for the creation, design and maintenance of the site, while Bogyoke Yay Khae—General Ice—is the audio engineer and producer. Bogyoke Mee Shay (General Rice Noodles) and Bogyoke San Pyote (General Porridge) work on scripts and liaise with volunteer voice actors.

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“It was an impulsive decision, really,” General Noodles told VICE World News of the website’s creation. “We were originally only thinking of making live stream channels on Twitch and/or YouTube. We had a couple test runs and promoted them but it didn’t really blow up. A week later, the idea of making a website just came to me.”

They sat down and built the site in about four hours, while a colleague who goes by Bokgyoke Sin Yel, or General Poor, created the logo: a megaphone blasting noise at a dog. 

“We thought it was literal—blasting propaganda on the megaphones for the military dogs to hear—stupid, and also funny,” General Noodles said. 

The name was also something of an impulsive decision. The team was discussing ideas when General Noodles recalled a YouTube video of Hanoi Hannah telling American soldiers that they should abandon the fight in Vietnam, with the reverb and echo of old radio broadcasts adding an eerie atmosphere.    

He suggested Operation Hanoi Hannah. There was unanimous agreement. 

“We thought it was literal—blasting propaganda on the megaphones for the military dogs to hear—stupid, and also funny.”

The creators believe that their work can play a real role in the larger Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), which has used strikes, a shadow government, and international diplomacy to strike a blow at the legitimacy of military rule. But it is still early days for the largely leaderless movement in a standoff that could last months if not years.

“Unfortunately, we have not seen or heard reports of our audio being played on the streets,” they said. “That is one main concern that we have, the project is lacking in terms of implementation. We imagine that the audio can be played through loudspeakers, and then on the radio since the internet is cut off in most areas in the country.” 

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Overall, they intend to encourage more members of the security forces to defect to the movement, a small but growing trend.

“There are recorded cases of police and soldiers that went to defect but are afraid to or don’t have the support, and we are just one of the things that can help push them over the edge,” the group said.

They hope to launch “pirate” radio stations to broadcast their tracks around Myanmar, though one radio station in the country has already aired some of their material.

“When I heard OPHH [Operation Hanoi Hannah] on Federal FM [a new pirate radio station in Yangon created after the coup], I couldn’t even believe my own ears,” General Porridge said. “Hearing my scripts on the radio is something I never imagined, and most importantly, I hope these tracks really make an impact in our fight against the terrorists.” 

OPHH also comes in response to the Myanmar military’s own widespread use of psychological warfare. An analysis of armed forces propaganda through broadcast, print, and social media found that it targets those with “less political awareness and people who are not fully conscious about the contemporary political landscape.” In an investigation last month, VICE World News also uncovered multiple videos of soldiers using TikTok to spread messages aimed at protesters while threatening them.

“Hearing my scripts on the radio is something I never imagined, and most importantly, I hope these tracks really make an impact in our fight against the terrorists.”

In a new report, the Crisis Group forecast that the standoff between the military and the protesters will only deepen as violent crackdowns deepen the popular consensus that a “return to military rule must be prevented at all costs.”

The team behind OPHH, for their part, has no intention of backing down, and they hope others join their effort as well and create their own anti-junta propaganda. 

“As the project gains more popularity, we’ve gotten messages from many people who are willing to help us out: professional voice actors who want to help with voice recordings, people to help write scripts, people who sent us their own tracks that they produced and people who want to donate to us as well,” the team said. 

Putting the tracks together, meanwhile, is a multi-step process involving several people. But it could not be done without Myanmar’s “Gen Z” activists, taking the fight online.

“Something like OPHH could only have been dreamed up by the youth,” Bokyoke Cho Seint— General Sweet Tea—said. “In that sense, OPHH reflects the youth’s fight, even though we’re fighting for every generation.”