Masters of Propaganda


Yangon, MYANMAR

2 JULY, 2010

A billboard in Vietnam

Would it be naïve to say we don’t have propaganda in the US? Well, yes, I suppose we could admit our media, art, marketing campaigns, and advertisements, all heavily influence the way we think. However, we maintain the right to disagree with those incoming messages and to publish or publicize in one way or another our opinions of dissent. Freedom of speech is an important medium and one of the most telling measures of a democratic community. We are able to express our political opinions freely, criticize the government, and organize in groups to freely share information and mobilize action when necessary. This wide range of freedom of thought and speech is not available to some people in authoritarian countries.

Living in SE Asia, I’ve been struck by the Vietnamese government-sponsored posters and advertisements, encouraging uniform thought and communally neutralized behavior. The abiding message is not to step out of line. The good citizen keeps his discontent or political thoughts to himself. Actually, the power holders would prefer he or she not have any political thoughts, and they take steps to ensure that social groups and the education system don’t encourage people to enter the sphere of political debate. The central party does not legally provide for the formation of any opposition parties, and the education system still promotes the same bland communist virtue and rote ethical system: work hard, defend the country, maintain solidarity, but don’t think about what’s wrong.

On another level, though, people must be aware that many public signs and socialist billboards are often hypocritical. One of my favorites can be found all over Ho Chi Minh City, a mess of inadequate infrastructure and half-hearted development that didn’t have time to plan the accommodation of the surge of people moving in from the countryside with Vietnam’s consistent economic growth. This sign says:

THANH PHO HO CHI MINH SACH, XANH, DEP, AN TOAN.

“HO CHI MINH CITY IS CLEAN, GREEN, BEAUTIFUL, AND SAFE.”

If you take a minute to look around, you’ll see the only green space can be found in a few, isolated parks. Actually, to be fair, the grass in these parks is protected by such signs as I mentioned in my first post (“Beyond Chinglish”), barking at the viewer, “NO WALK ON GRASS!” The street sweepers are incredibly efficient, but how are they to keep up with people who still aren’t taught to recycle, and who dump their garbage on the street (or, alternatively, burn it in the gutter)? In fact, I routinely see people toss finished cups from moving vehicles, without batting an eye.

And “safe!” I don’t think so. In a city where prostitution and drug dealing are protected by the bribes of local authorities who turn a blind eye as long as those perpetrating the crimes are more or less confined to allocated “safe zones,” where gangs of motorbikes race nightly, and where ten million citizens, (many of whom are not registered) try to live alongside one another peaceably, the city is hardly safe.

The innumerable other signs around the city show happy, pallid, robot-like families, posing under socialist slogans celebrating independence or military victory. Others exhibit an idealized communist slice of society: a construction worker, a soldier, a teacher, and a student, standing together.

This week, I am traveling to Yangon, Myanmar. Before leaving yesterday, I scoured the internet for a preview of signs and propaganda that I could expect to see. The general message on that front seems to be the unity of the people and the tatmadaw, or armed forces, in protecting the national cause. One sign was related specifically to the 2008 constitutional referendum, which was held to a vote around Myanmar in the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history.

Everyone who wants to have democracy should agree on the new constitution. Let’s vote for the new constitution to bring in democracy.

The military junta also employs the printing press in its favor as part of the propaganda machine. One headline is particularly telling of the desired message: “Tatmadaw and the people striving together for emergence of democratic state” (The New Light of Myanmar, 29 March, 2006). It seems far fetched to say the junta and the people are working together on the whole, but the fact remains that civil society has made important strides in the last twenty years. However, this development is due less to any cooperation from the legal and political system; rather it is due more to the increasing role civil society actors are finding by taking advantage of certain weak spots in the public sector, such as health and education, where the government tolerates (albeit with great skepticism and frequently incoherent, reactionary policies) some measure of private initiative. As a result, the seeds of civil society are spreading a subtle democratic substratum.

So who actually falls for all this propaganda? Who subscribes to the blatant, pro-regime ideologies pouring forth from the socialist party in Vietnam and the military junta in Myanmar? Does the top-down approach exhibited by both governments even require the cooperation of the people? As one of my Burmese friends in Thailand told me, “The tatmadaw doesn’t need the people.” Then why the constant expounding of dogmatic self-celebration? Perhaps an active and enthusiastic citizenry is not the audience the propaganda machine seeks. Perhaps the regime desperately wants to believe in its own legitimacy.

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4 Responses to Masters of Propaganda

  1. Kyle says:

    Whats up, friend. Long time no chat.

    What has been your experience when you’ve talked to local Vietnamese about the billboards and overall government propaganda? I’ve had basic conversations with my students about some of it, but I figure you’ve gotten more in depth about the subject since you can communicate in Vietnamese. I’m curious to hear what you’ve found.

    • Con Trau says:

      Actually, I didn’t really talk to them about it. What did your students say? I’ve been working in Thailand this summer, so I could only visit HCMC for about 10 days before coming here. I just got back from a trip to Burma. What are you up to?

      • Kyle says:

        I never got too in depth but it seemed like they usually thought that since the government had good intentions for them, that it meant that government must be right in whatever they are saying. It was basically the opposite of what we do here in the States, in which we always look at the government skeptically. But I guess it comes with the territory.

        I’m back in the U.S. now, working for a teaching abroad company as a recruiter/student advisor. I’m thinking of heading back to either Vietnam or doing a stint down in S. America. I’m getting pretty bored back here.

        Are you back in SE Asia for awhile, or are you doing grad school in the fall?

  2. ourman says:

    As regards propaganda – let’s look at it this way: You have been quick to pick up on the government boards which I don’t think anyone pays much notice too.

    It’s easy to use this to dismiss Vietnam as tightly government controlled and it has been allied to the lack of human rights and human rights abuses by the government.

    However…you can also choose to believe that the USA is the “land of the free”.

    But in Vietnam no one is being waterboarded, there is no Guantanamo, there are no wars on foreign soil justified initially over reports of weapons that have proved to be at best inaccurate and at worst, propaganda. No one is being extradited to overseas spots where they can be tortured without contravening local laws.

    So why do people believe that one country is a major human rights abuser and one is the “home of the free? Maybe as a result of their own type of propaganda.

    In truth the reason that Vietnam’s propaganda is both easily spotted and not very successful is that it is not very good. Modern methods of public relations in more wealthy countries are far better methods of propaganda…they’re just not so obvious.

    Which is why, of course, they work.

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