To mark the fourth anniversary of National League for Democracy co-founder U Win Tin’s death on April 21, we republish this interview with the long-time political prisoner, conducted by Irrawaddy senior editor Kyaw Zwa Moe. The interview, conducted in December 2013, concerns the imprisonment and torture of political activists (including himself) and U Win Tin’s view that Myanmar’s former military rulers, starting with ex-Military Intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt, owe the nation, former political prisoners — and even themselves — an apology. Also interviewed is Hnin Hnin Hmway of the Democratic Party for New Society.
The discussions were recorded for Dateline Irrawaddy and broadcast on DVB. The video, with English subtitles, can be found here. The following text is an English translation of the transcript of the discussions with Win Tin.
Kyaw Zwa Moe: Former Chief of Military Intelligence Unit General Khin Nyunt once said that he is not accountable for the arrests and imprisonments because he was just following orders and thus he can’t apologize to anyone.
U Win Tin, you were arrested in 1989 by the Military Intelligence and underwent torture that resulted in loss of your teeth and you spent 19 years in prison. How do you want to respond to General Khin Nyunt’s remarks?
Win Tin: I met him by chance at the funeral of Guardian [journalist] U Sein Win [in November 2013]. He told me to let bygones be bygones. I didn’t reply anything because there were many people around and I didn’t want to argue with him. However, our brief meeting was photographed and the news spread across the media and online.
When the media interviewed me how my response would be on his remarks, I answered in three points. Point one is that these Military Intelligence personnel, including their seniors and those who ordered them, must apologize to us, former political prisoners, the people and also themselves.
Because what they did was wrong. Point two is to correct the wrongs and prevent any transgressions in the future. The intelligence personnel might still be active in current governance mechanisms, so we must prevent intelligence personnel from committing any such deeds; they must apologize and correct their transgressions.
Point three is related to rehabilitation of the former political prisoners, which is what we have been doing already. Those former generals with their enormous treasure troves, obtained either from the state or through their powerful roles, should consider contributing to the rehabilitation activities for former political prisoners or establish funds for that. These are the points I mentioned to the media. However, Khin Nyunt said, “To whom should I apologize?” in another case. So my response for that was first: The political prisoners, former intelligence prisoners, and exiles, and second: The people, and third: themselves.
KZM: Can you tell me about your experience of the interrogation and torture you endured in prison?
WT: They used a lot of torture methods and there are many people who have experiences like me. I want to tell you about an exceptional experience. They interrogated me on my first night in the prison. They interrogated me for six days and I had to scream when they tortured me. While they were doing this they wore masks, so that we didn’t know who they were. I strongly objected to that because I am a politician and a leader of a political party. I lost all of my teeth within a year because of the torture. In 1991, when they started to release some prisoners, they had people with missing teeth receive implants and receive medical service. By then, I had no more teeth and I had to eat with just my gums.
KZM: Was the rice served in prison hard?
WT: The rice was hard and I couldn’t even chew it with my gums. My suffering lasted for 7 years and they only implanted my new teeth in 1998. That was an exceptional experience. There might be people who underwent similar or much worse experiences then my own. No one can bear such torture and no one is willing to endure torture.
KZM: U Win Tin, who do you consider responsible for the  coup? Was it General Khin Nyunt, Senior General Than Shwe, or Senior General Saw Maung? Was General Khin Nyunt the right hand man of General Ne Win at that time?
WT: I don’t know what exactly was going on in the army at that time. But there is a word I always use in talking about the coup, which is that the bones will crow one day and tell the real story, because the truth can’t be hidden all the time. It will be revealed one day. I didn’t know what the military intelligence were doing back then, but now we are getting some picture of what they were doing from what they say now in the media from people like General Khin Nyunt, or the grandsons of U Ne Win who were just released from prison.
What we understand from these is that on September 17, one day before the coup, U Kyawt Maung and Colonel Tin Hlaing, I am not sure if it was him, put General Khin Nyunt in charge and they went to meet General Ne Win to present the [88 Uprising] situation and push for a coup. Ne Win replied them that they must inform the leaders before the coup as it is a military procedure and asked them to inform the leaders like Colonel Aye Ko, U Than Oo and Colonel Kyaw Soe. When they came back the next day after informing these leaders, General Ne Win asked them to do what they have to “go and arrest who you need to arrest”, even him if they have to. By saying this, General Ne Win gave them permission to arrest anyone they wanted and stage a coup. What I understand from this is that it was General Khin Nyunt who pushed for the coup and General Ne Win gave the order.
KZM: As you have lived through different ages like the Japanese occupation and the like, I would like ask: Do you consider the era of General Khin Nyunt after the 1988 coup the most terrible period in Burmese history?
WT: It can be said it was the most terrible, the cruelest and the worst period in our history. At the time of Japanese occupation, I was very young and I can’t remember the atrocities of Japanese Kempeitai. What I can say is that I have lived through that era, [the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League] era and the following eras; so of all the eras I have lived, the era of the Military Intelligence Unit was the harshest, the most lawless, and the worst among all these eras.
When they put me on trial at the Military Court, they produced some witnesses whom I didn’t know and they didn’t know me either. I objected to that at the trial. When they brought me at the court, they handcuffed me tightly and I screamed. After sentencing me to 10 years, the military intelligence officers who were there called the judge to leave the trial for a while. When the judge came back, he added one more year to my sentence, because I screamed. The total sentences I received amounted to 21 years, not just 20 years. There were a seven-year sentence, a three-year sentence and an eleven-year sentence handed to me. And they reduced a year from my total sentence only later. The Military Intelligence Unit was behind the Military Court in sentencing me, including sentencing me to a year more for screaming at the court.
KZM: What about your experience U Win Tin? You had an operation while you were in prison?
WT: Let me explain a bit about what Ma Hnin Hnin Hmway just mentioned about sleeping on the concrete floor with just a mat. When I was in the interrogation camp it was January, during the winter. They didn’t provide us mats. Because Ko Thet Khaing tried to commit suicide by slashing his veins with a blade the authorities tried to suppress the news for fear that they will face blames from superiors and told them that he used the bamboo slats instead.
As a result, they took all the mats from us to prevent any more cases like that. That’s why we had to sleep on the bare concrete floors. Although General Khin Nyunt said he was acting in accordance with the orders from above, he himself was among those who gave such orders to those below him. He must apologize for that as well. I went through operations for hernia and was hospitalized for heart problems and benign prostatic hypertrophy, but they delayed the operation many times. In January 1990, while I was suffering from hernia and lying in my bed, they just gave me some shots instead of sending me to the hospital. I suffered from these problems for five years and only in 1995 they sent me to hospital.
Than Shwe alone is not responsible for all these violations. Khin Nyunt and his underlings also played their roles in ignoring cases like these, as they wished us to die. So Khin Nyuint and others are responsible for these and they can’t just blame the top man Than Shwe.
KZM: They played a major role in crushing political activists?
UT: They all are responsible.
KZM: There are 162 recorded cases of death in custody after 1988 as far as I know. And during the years 1988, 1989 and 1990, there were about 3,000 to 4,000 political prisoners. How many political prisoners do you think they held through their reign? Can it be about ten thousands political prisoners during their reign until 2004?
WT: I don’t know about this statistically because I am not responsible for political prisoners’ affairs institutionally. But I always tell the media that there could have been about 10,000 political prisoners. And there will be hundreds of thousands of family members related to these political prisoners. Those who are responsible for these deeds must also take care of them and apologize to them. I am happy to see that my estimation of the numbers of political prisoners is close to the assumptions of institutions working for the affairs of the political prisoners.
KZM: There were people imprisoned from all walks of lives, starting from 14, 15 year-olds to educated doctors, lawyers, engineers to people like you who are political party leaders and journalists. That’s why some people are accusing them of committing crimes against humanity. What do you think about this accusation?
WT: Accusations like these emerged around 2009 in places like United States, at the United Nations and among human rights organizations. And they are suggesting to prosecute those responsible. I’ve also commented that they committed crimes against humanity. By ‘they’ I mean people like General Khin Nyunt, Than Shwe and even Thein Sein. He was also a member of that group that committed such crimes.
KZM: But he released many political prisoners under his administration.
WT: They can’t compensate for their crimes so easily. It depends on the severity of the crimes. I think these two are not related. There were those in the international community who were working back to prosecute them in 2009, like Ko Aung Din from the US, and people in about 13 countries, including the US. The army knew that and they had to change their course or face the consequences. They benefited from the change they carried out and tried to free themselves from the accusations.
However, they are still responsible for what they did and they will still be recorded in history as those who committed crimes against humanity. History is not a judge and it can’t give them any punishments. However, history will never forget what they did; their atrocious crimes against humanity will remain in history. That’s what I want to say.