The Dictators: Part 8—Khin Nyunt Overplays his Hand

By Aung Zaw 26 April 2013

This is the eighth installment in the The Dictators series by The Irrawaddy that delves into the lives and careers of Burma’s two most infamous military chiefs and the cohorts that surrounded them.

On April 23, 1992, the regime’s radio station announced that Saw Maung had retired due to ill health and Than Shwe would take over as the chairman of SLORC. Saw Maung apparently wasn’t listening, however, and the next morning he prepared to go to his office without realizing that he had been removed.

The former commander-in-chief of the armed forces soon discovered that soldiers surrounded his home and he had been placed under house arrest. The infuriated Saw Maung yelled at his personal staff officers and family members, sending his wife rushing to the Defense Ministry on Signal Road, where she asked for a face-to-face meeting with top brass and lashed out to no avail at Than Shwe and Khin Nyunt—all to the amusement of junior officers who were present.

With Than Shwe now the chairman of the SLORC, astrologer U Nyan Zaw’s prediction that he would one day become king of Burma was looking less like a joke and more like a prescient prediction. But there was still an ongoing power struggle between Than Shwe and Khin Nyunt which neither could display in public.

In addition, because there was no longer an all-powerful figure like Ne Win in the ruling council, decisions had to be made by consensus. Than Shwe knew the dynamics in the War Office and quietly observed that his power base was not solid because many members of SLORC were either his contemporaries or senior to him.

But he quietly made the right moves behind the scenes, and a consensus was reached that Khin Nyunt could not fill the now vacant positions of vice chairman of SLORC and or commander-in-chief of the army because this could undermine unity in the armed forces or lead to another coup.

The devas were smiling on Than Shwe, who was on a political roll, and he didn’t forget to make merit after ascending to the top position of SLORC and keeping his chief rival out of the number two slot: the regime soon announced the convening of a National Convention to draft a new constitution, the release of some political prisoners and the halting of military operations against Karen insurgents on the Thai-Burmese border. These deceptive handouts, for which Than Shwe knew he could take credit as the new SLORC Chairman, were one of the initial signs of his cornerstone strategy to deflect domestic and international critics.

At the same time, the USDA was formed by the regime’s top generals in 1993 to foster “political leadership” among civilians and to form a people’s militia to carry out the regime’s “people’s war” strategy which was intended to protect the state from internal and external threats while co-opting the entire nation into the general’s military mentality.

During the 1990s, civil servants (including the armed forces) and many teachers and students were coerced into joining the USDA. Ostensibly formed as a social organization, the USDA was in fact a civilian structure of the regime, and its policies mirrored those of the ruling junta. Wearing a white shirt and green longyi, the USDA’s civilian uniform, the members of the organization were used by the generals to promote the regime’s image in the eyes of the public.

All these moves could be interpreted as part of Than Shwe’s strategy to consolidate his power at the War Office. They were also an indication of Than Shwe’s long-term vision of how he would guide the country through a political transition that would have the façade of a civilian government while maintaining the military’s role in national politics.

Also in 1993, there was a reorganization of the power structure at the Defense Ministry and an expansion of the cabinet. Regional army commanders Tun Kyi, Kyaw Ba, and Myint Aung were at loggerheads with intelligence chief Khin Nyunt, and to calm them they were appointed as ministers and relocated to Rangoon. This was also a deceptively sly move by Than Shwe, because afterwards he and senior officers at the War Office who were loyal to him were able to fill the vacant spots with officers who were also close to them.

Than Shwe’s next strategic move came in March 1993, when he arranged to have Maung Aye, a member of SLORC, offered the still vacant posts of vice chairman of SLORC and army commander-in-chief. Born in Kantbalu, Maung Aye attended Defense Services Academy (DSA) Intake 1. He was not an outstanding cadet, was only interested in army affairs, was less cunning than Than Shwe and didn’t understand the world of politics. But he was a loyal and useful ally for Than Shwe.

Lt-Gen Kyaw Ba and Lt-Gen Tun Kyi, who were also from DSA Intake 1, were happy to see that Maung Aye became the army chief, and his appointment further defused the rising tension among field commanders and senior officers who disapproved of the rise of Khin Nyunt.

But as could have been expected, as soon as Maung Aye reported to work at the War Office, a new tension between him and the powerful intelligence chief flared up. Maung Aye even set up his own intelligence unit and reportedly bought a powerful radio interceptor from a Western country to counter Khin Nyunt and his growing intelligence empire.

Than Shwe was now forced to keep an eye on the bitter fight between Khin Nyunt’s intelligence faction and Maung Aye’s military faction, and was bombarded by politically motivated reports from both sides. The hot-tempered and sharp tongued Lt-Gen Tun Kyi, who was now Trade Minister, would come into Than Shwe’s office and complain about Khin Nyunt, calling the intelligence chief “Min Tha,” meaning movie star—it was rumored that well-dressed Khin Nyunt wore makeup and perfume and regularly received a facial massage.

Khin Nyunt knew his enemies, however, and took a different approach to battling them. He rarely entered Than Shwe’s room and always treated him with full respect while working hard to prove corruption cases against rivals Tun Kyi, Kyaw Ba and Myint Aung.

Khin Nyunt’s sleeper cells in the ministries had done a great job of collecting first hand information about Tun Kyi’s Trade Ministry, Kyaw Ba’s Tourism Ministry and Myint Aung’s Agriculture Ministry. In his paper, “Power and Factional Struggles in Post-independence Burmese Governments,” Kyaw Yin Hlaing wrote: “According to well-placed sources, Khin Nyunt had long submitted reports on the corrupt activities of senior ministers and regional commanders to both Saw Maung and Than Shwe, but no action was taken until after Than Shwe angrily threw a tea cup at Tun Kyi when the latter disrespectfully ridiculed his call for the need to reduce corruption in the government by saying that no one in the government was free from corruption (thereby suggesting that the senior general himself was also corrupt).”

Although Than Shwe had seen all the reports provided by Khin Nyunt and his intelligence services, he still didn’t trust Khin Nyunt and so planted his own man in the intelligence chief’s inner circle. In 1994, Col Kyaw Win was appointed deputy chief of Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence (DDSI) as part of the “checks and balances” system in the War Office. His prime purpose for being there, of course, was to keep a close eye on Khin Nyunt.

The bespectacled Kyaw Win, who studied psychology at Rangoon University in the 1960s before joining the army, previously served under Than Shwe when he was commander of the 88th Light Infantry Division. Kyaw Win was one of Than Shwe’s favorites and they remained close over the years.

When Than Shwe became chairman of the SLORC in 1992, Kyaw Win was a major in military intelligence (1) in Mandalay and on the fast-track to the top ranks of the intelligence unit. In his spare time, the soft-spoken spook who was fluent in English was also an artist. His interests included drawing, painting and photography and he published books featuring his photography work.

Despite Than Shwe’s internal consolidation of power, the energetic and ambitious Khin Nyunt’s hard-working style still had international observers believing that he was the most powerful figure in Burma. In 1994, however, when US Congressman Bill Richardson came to Burma and met detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the ubiquitous spy chief may have overplayed his hand.

After the meeting with Suu Kyi, the congressman released a statement in Bangkok full of praise for her and saying Khin Nyunt “is a pragmatic individual who is sincere.” The congressman then went on to raise regime eyebrows by saying, “I think the future of Burma will be determined by two people: Khin Nyunt and Aung San Suu Kyi.”

Richardson was unaware that the meeting with Suu Kyi, which was purportedly arranged by Khin Nyunt, was in fact permitted by Than Shwe as one of his carefully crafted publicity ploys designed to cause a diversion and create confusion. The congressman had bet on the wrong horse, and may in fact have signed Khin Nyunt’s arrest warrant.