YANGON—Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein never seems to lack for ways to surprise people. He is constantly leaving observers wondering at his actions. He once said, to the ire of the military, that according to state protocol Myanmar’s powerful armed forces leader was no higher than a department director-general. Last year he honored a Malaysian fraudster with a certificate after the man made a donation to the Yangon government to assist its social work. And he remained silent when Yangon lawmakers questioned his government’s use of portions of the city’s budget for certain projects without the parliament’s knowledge.
On Saturday, he sprang his latest surprise. But this time it was simply embarrassing. U Phyo Min Thein paid his respects to the former military spy chief, retired General Khin Nyunt, along with other senior writers at an annual Myanmar Writers Association event. Organizers said the former general was invited as he has written nine books (including his memoirs, which were mainly an exercise in self-justification regarding his actions during his time as spy chief and prime minister), and because he is now 79 years old.
The Yangon chief minister has paid a price for his actions. When pictures of the event went viral he faced an online backlash, mostly from literary and political circles, for kowtowing to someone who was known as the “Prince of Evil” for his brutality as Military Intelligence (MI) chief against students and activists involved in the country’s democracy movement. Interestingly, he was one of those behind the chief minister’s 15-year prison term for his political activism.
Ko Min Ko Naing, a prominent former student leader and a key figure in the ’88 Uprising, posted a short message on his Facebook page: “Never turn a murderer into someone respectful.” While the note didn’t mention any names, it was very clear to Myanmar people who the “murderer” in the message is.
National League for Democracy lawmaker Daw Zin Mar Aung wrote on her Facebook page that the chief minister’s action did nothing to help the national reconciliation the NLD has long advocated. Before coming to power, the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led NLD openly announced that it wouldn’t hold grudges against anyone in the former military regime despite their involvement in the arrest, ill treatment and torture of political prisoners. Under the regime, from 1988 to 2010, the NLD was the most oppressed political party in the country.
Daw Zin Mar Aung said she might be able to understand if the chief minister had somehow forgotten the scars on his back, the blows to his chin, the rolling of iron bars on his shins—all of which he sustained during his interrogations like other political prisoners during his arrest and imprisonment—while he was kowtowing to the former spy chief.
“But you [U Phyo Min Thein] should be ashamed to [disgrace] the NLD jacket and the party badge you were wearing,” she said, referring to the jacket—colored in the NLD’s light-orange shade—and the party logo he bore on his breast on the day.
‘To Whom Should I Apologize?’
Gen. Khin Nyunt is said to have been among the key government players in a military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1988 that led to the deaths of thousands of people. When the military staged a coup in September 1988, he was the third most powerful person in the regime and the head of its intelligence unit—a military apparatus mainly responsible for the oppression of political dissidents. He held this position until his purge from the regime in 2004. He was given a 44-year prison sentence but this was later commuted to house arrest. He was freed in an amnesty in 2011.
According to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Myanmar), nearly 200 people died in torture chambers during MI interrogations and prisons due to ill treatment during the former military regime. Every former political prisoner who was fortunate enough to emerge from prison alive can tell you of their experience of at least one of the following: It was MI officers who raided activists’ homes, mostly in the middle of the night to avoid the attention of neighbors, to make arrests. Gen. Khin Nyunt’s subordinates held the fate of political prisoners in their hands, deciding whether they should be sent to hospitals for emergency treatment when they were seriously ill. During interrogation sessions, his staff used every torture method you could name—sleep deprivation was universal—while barking at the victim, “You know what? You can’t establish a country without a military and prostitutes!” Even in court, if you were assertive or made complaints about the verdict, an MI officer would summon the judge to a backroom meeting and order him or her to increase the prison term by a few years. Upon their release, former political prisoners rarely escaped the MI’s watchful eyes in their daily lives.
Gen. Khin Nyunt himself regarded political prisoners as criminals and lawbreakers. In his eyes, then democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was “untrustworthy” because she was married to a foreigner.
“Let’s say if she becomes prime minister or president, she would share state secrets or [proceedings of] cabinet meetings with her husband in bed,” he told senior military officials during a lecture at the National Defense College in 1993, according to a leaked transcript of the lecture. Throughout the talk, he didn’t mention Daw Aung San Suu Kyi by name, referring to her simply as “that woman”.
During interviews after his release, the former spy chief used to say that he had simply been following orders from above, referring to Senior General Than Shwe and Vice Senior General Maung Aye, the first and second supremos of the junta. Given his powerful roles and responsibilities—ranging from head of Military Intelligence to striking peace deals with ethnic armed groups to opening multimedia classrooms in high schools and deciding who should get Myanmar’s equivalent of the Oscars each year—many people saw his defense as feeble. When former political prisoners called for him to admit his and his subordinates’ wrongdoings, he retorted, “To whom should I apologize?”
However, in his self-promoting 2015 memoir “Lives I Have Been Through”, he offered vague words of contrition to some people and their families, conceding that some mistakes may have been made, albeit with the best of intentions and in the interests of the state and the wellbeing of his fellow citizens.
The term “political prisoner”, however, rarely appears in the 657-page volume.
‘No Grudge, No Retaliation’
Undeterred by the criticism, U Phyo Min Thein told the media on Sunday that he would try to be forgiving, adding that there would be no grudges held and no retaliation against the man who once put him behind bars for 15 years.
“Currently, I am a chief minister and U Khin Nyunt is an ordinary citizen. Retaliation is not necessary [for me]. I want to urge [people] to have loving kindness toward every one and to keep striving for reform,” he said.
But the chief minister misses the point. Long before his claims on Sunday, many former political prisoners said they would not hold grudges toward those who mistreated them, saying, “We can forgive, but not forget.” What has upset these people is the manner in which U Phyo Min Thein paid his respects to the former spy chief—his actions constituted the highest form of respect that one can pay as a Myanmar Buddhist, and were no different from the greeting you would offer a monk.
Ko Mya Aye, an ’88 Students Generation leader and former political prisoner, said the chief minister’s actions were wrong, adding that he was saddened to see his fellow democracy activist kowtowing to the man who was once in charge of the MI.
“No one has been calling for retaliation against him [U Khin Nyunt]. I don’t hate him personally, but the fact can’t be denied that he used to run a bad system that ruined the whole country,” he said.