Khin Nyunt, a former prime minister and spy chief of the previous Burmese military regime, was released from house arrest on Jan. 13, 2012, under an amnesty order endorsed by reformist President Thein Sein.
He recently opened an art gallery, cafe and souvenir shop inside his residential compound. All three are named “Nawaday,” after the road his house is located on, in Rangoon’s Dagon Township.
Formerly one of the most powerful and feared men in Burma under the military junta, Khin Nyunt sat down with The Irrawaddy to talk about his inspiration for opening the gallery, the changes in his life since his days with the regime, and whether he would ever consider a return to the political arena.
How did you come up with the idea to open an art gallery and coffee corner?
I respect the 10 Burmese arts [traditional forms of art metaphorically called the ‘Ten Flowers’] very much and held an exhibition for them every year when I was in office. They are our real traditional arts and have been in existence since the beginning of Burmese history.
However, some of the arts have faded a bit due to other changes in the new era. It wouldn’t be that way if we all loved and preserved them. I am now trying to do what I can to promote the art of painting [one of the Ten Flowers].
A lot of tourists are visiting our country now because of our political changes and they are quite interested in Burmese paintings. Some of them have bought a number of pieces.
I value our paintings as well as the artists. I want [Burmese] paintings, which they value, to be in different countries around the world as valuable works. To do so, there must be galleries like this where Burma’s painters can exhibit and sell their works at decent prices. They can exhibit their works here in my gallery without any charge.
Does someone have to be a famous artist to exhibit his or her paintings in this gallery? Or can any painter bring their works here?
Nawaday Art Gallery doesn’t discriminate among artists. They can come and exhibit their works regardless of whether they are famous or not. But they must be real painters and not fake ones. If they are real they can come and discuss available gallery space.
There is speculation on social media that as a courtesy you will allow artists who are former political prisoners to use your gallery to exhibit their works. Is that true?
No. I have never talked about political prisoners in connection with exhibiting. My gallery doesn’t have any restrictions to discriminate against anyone. Everybody can come and exhibit their works.
How did you achieve the gallery’s current profile just over a year after your release from house arrest?
I first had to pay attention to survival after I was released from house arrest, as I am not a rich person. When I was in office, I wasn’t involved in corruption or profiteering with other businessmen so I had to strive for my family’s survival right after the release.
The opening of the art gallery and other facilities is my second attempted social activity. The first one was the establishment of the Shwe Hmaw Wun Foundation in my hometown last year in order to provide assistance to the education and health care sectors.
I want to build a peaceful life for myself during my second endeavor. I now have peace and expect that I will be more peaceful with the gallery open.
Is a desire to get in better touch with the general public a motivation for your opening of this gallery and coffee corner?
No. I don’t have such intention at all. Why do I have to get in touch with the general public? Just ask me directly whether I will get involved in politics again! I would say no, no, no. I will just establish a peaceful life for me in my compound.
I wasn’t involved in politics in the past either. I did many things [during military rule] as I was assigned by the state. So I don’t even think about being involved in it now.
I served the country for 45 years and I’m now 74. I don’t think people at my age should be involved in politics. Instead, we must pay attention to religious and social activities. Those who should be involved in politics are young and middle-aged people and next generations.
So I will just focus on religious and social activities, through which I can earn merit.
What will be your third post-regime endeavor? Have you thought about it?
I am interested in social issues so, if I have a chance, I will provide humanitarian assistance to others.
You used to hold high positions under the military regime and now you’re an ordinary citizen. What is the difference between then and now?
I feel free and peaceful now. The state duties I shouldered were a big burden. I encountered a lot of difficulties and had to put in a lot of effort as well. My life, now peaceful, is very different from the past. A family life is peaceful and cannot compare with anything else. I feel sympathy for those who have to serve the country today. They shoulder a big burden.
When you were in office, you managed to forge ceasefire agreements with various armed ethnic groups in order to bring peace to different regions. A number of agreements were later broken but now the current administration has resumed the peace process. What do you think of that, and how should reconciliation be carried out?
I don’t think I am in a position to criticize the current process. They [current government peace negotiators] are trying for peace, aren’t they? They are working with goodwill and shouldn’t be criticized now. I shouldn’t be critical of them. If both sides [the government and ethnic armed groups] have no doubts about each other, peace will prevail.
Do you feel that you were successful in your work under the former regime?
I just felt that I had to work for my country and was successful whenever I carried out my assignments. I am not conceited or boastful about anything I did and I don’t feel that those successes were because of me.
What do you think of the current reforms?
They are trying as best they can. I will support whoever holds the presidency as long as that person works to contribute to the good of the country and improve the social lives of its citizens. I don’t have particular favor toward anyone or any political party. Our country now has good opportunities so we must not hold such favoritism.
If we all work hand in hand with the same goals for the development of our country and building up people’s social standards, our country will improve sooner. But, if it is unruly and has problems everywhere, our country will never be peaceful and developed. I dare say that.