From the Archive

Bye Bye, Big Brother

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 20 October 2020

Myanmar’s former military regime is often described as “Orwellian” for its reliance on a ruthless security apparatus, which kept it in power for almost five decades. No figure is more closely associated with the junta’s brutal suppression of political dissent than Khin Nyunt, who as head of the National Intelligence Bureau (NIB) and its Military Intelligence Service amassed such power he came to be feared even by the junta chief Than Shwe, who in an apparent act of self-preservation ordered the arrest of Khin Nyunt and shut down the NIB. To mark the 16th anniversary of the purging of Khin Nyunt this week, The Irrawaddy revisits this commentary from October 2008.

People in any Orwellian country would cheer the disappearance of Big Brother from their life. The Burmese people should celebrate this week, because it’s the 4th anniversary of the demise of the Burmese Big Brother.

Big Brother in Burma was so powerful and ruthless that people from all walks of life—even military officers—were frightened. It was a shadow government and a main pillar that helped to prolong military rule for almost five decades.

But the 56-year-old intelligence apparatus, which was founded after the country gained independence from Britain, came to an end on October 22, 2004, when the National Intelligence Bureau (NIB), headed by Khin Nyunt, was abolished by the junta. The NIB comprised the Military Intelligence Service, the police Special Branch, the Bureau of Special Investigation and the Criminal Investigation Department.

The military government announced, “The SPDC, which is striving to establish a modern, disciplined and democratic nation in line with the changing times, in the interest of the people, the security and the tranquility of the country, has found that the NIB law is no longer practicable.”

The powerful general and then prime minister, Khin Nyunt, was purged, arrested and later sentenced to 44 years imprisonment on charges of corruption and insubordination; he is now under house arrest. Most of his cadre of MI brigadier generals and colonels were sentenced to lengthy imprisonment. As many as another 1,500 intelligence personnel were retired, and about 2,500 enlisted men from the intelligence wing were transferred to infantry units in December 2004. Similarly, in 1983 the late dictator Gen Ne Win sacked his MI chief, Brig-Gen Tin Oo, on corruption charges after he became too powerful.

The military government later founded Military Security Affairs to replace the military intelligence service.

Big Brother’s disappearance from the daily life of the Burmese people is one positive act by the junta that the people can celebrate. Thousands of dissidents who experienced the MI era and this one can note the difference.

Win Tin, a prominent journalist-turned-politician who was recently released after serving 19 years in jail, gave full credit to the military regime for its abolition of the military intelligence apparatus. He told The Irrawaddy, “It was the only good thing the military regime has done through its history.”

In fact, Big Brother was feared even by the junta chief Than Shwe, who in an apparent act of self-preservation, ordered the arrest of Khin Nyunt and shut down the NIB.

Even today, it’s difficult for dissidents to find words to express their feelings about military intelligence. The MI interrogation centers across the country were living hell for thousands of dissidents following the 1988 pro-democracy movement.

As many as 10,000 dissidents experienced ruthless interrogation methods, said Bo Kyi, who was jailed two times and later co-founded of Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma). Numerous patriots in detention died during their interrogation sessions because of torture.

Before 1988, there were up to 12 military intelligence units in the country. After September 1988, MI opened up to 30 detachments across the country. MI-6, MI-7, MI-12, MI-14 and MI-20 were based in Rangoon. Each was assigned a different area. For instance, MI-6 was focused on the anti-government movement run by underground groups such as the Communist Party of Burma, while MI-7 was focused on the students’ movement.

MI-9 was in Lashio, in northern Shan State; MI-4 in Bassein, in the Irrawaddy Delta; MI-5 in Hpa-an, in Karen State; MI-8 in Myitkyinay, in Kachin State; and MI-16 in Mandalay.

Each detachment was notorious for its systematic, ruthless torture and persecution. Of course, the current police Special Branch and Military Security Affairs also use torture, but they can’t be compared with the former intelligence apparatus in terms of systematic abuse and ruthlessness.

Junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe has reigned in the intelligence apparatus, limiting its power and reach. Military Security Affairs, currently led by Lt-Gen Ye Myint, will not be allowed to accumulate power and privileges like Khin Nyunt and his MI officers.

MI has always been a tool to weaken and eliminate the pro-democracy movement. For decades it propped up the regime, until finally it became a threat to the rulers themselves.

Life without Big Brother is better. For Burma, however, a big problem remains: Big Brother’s boss is still there.

You may also like these stories:

The Day Myanmar’s Military Intelligence Chief was Sacked

How Suu Kyi was Barred from Standing in Myanmar’s Election Three Decades Ago

The Power Behind the Robe