Art Gallery Fails to Paint a Rosy Picture of Spymaster’s Legacy

By Kyaw Kha 14 June 2013

In one of the starkest about-faces in Burmese public life since the reforms of the last two years, the once-feared former head of the country’s Military Intelligence is today an art gallery owner.

Khin Nyunt, an ex-general and former director of Military Intelligence who has also served as secretary 1 and prime minister, was an influential figure in the days of Burma’s military regime. He was also notorious for sending thousands of politicians, activists and monks to prison, a political persecutor virtually unrivaled in Burma’s five decades of oppressive junta rule.

For many of Burma’s former political prisoners, Khin Nyunt is the man to thank for brutal interrogations, lengthy imprisonments and opportunities lost. His victims have endured economic and social hardship, health problems, and difficulty reintegrating into families and society. Some have divorced, others have lost contact with family members, and the unluckiest died in prison without ever having a chance to say last goodbyes to loved ones.

Than Zaw, a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), was one of those victims, having been wrongfully imprisoned for allegedly bombing the Thanlyin Oil Refinery in 1989. He was released last year after serving 23 years behind bars.

While in prison, both his parents died, and since his release he has struggled to secure a permanent place to live. Finding a job has been equally difficult.

Currently, he takes refuge at his sister’s house and sometimes stays at a friend’s place. Because of his lengthy imprisonment, he lost contact with the outside world, rendering him unfit for most jobs and ill-equipped to handle the technological advances of more than two decades. That means taking any job he can get to earn a living.

“It would be a lie if I say I am not ruined,” Than Zaw said. “Now I have no place to live. I’ve lost my parents as well. I just have to cling to my sister’s and friend’s house for shelter. I want to work but there are no jobs for me. My life is more than ruined. It is both mentally and physically ruined.”

Than Zaw’s story is not unique. Nyi Nyi Oo and Moe Kyaw Thu from Thanlyin Township, also NLD youth leaders, were sent to prison along with Than Zaw for their alleged involvement in the same case. They too are finding it difficult to pick up the pieces of the lives they left behind at the prison gates.

All three were arrested by intelligence officers under Khin Nyunt and charged with blowing up the Thanlyin Oil Refinery in July 1989. They were sent to Yay Kyi Ai, a notorious interrogation camp that was also known as the “Hell Room.” There, they were interrogated and tortured in a variety of ways, and were later forced to admit that they were the perpetrators of the refinery explosion. Their false admissions of guilt saw them sentenced to death.

The real culprit, who bombed both the Thanlyin Oil Refinery and Rangoon City Hall, was later caught, admitted his guilt and was sentenced to death, but was released in 2005.

Far from being exonerated and released with the true perpetrator revealed, Than Zaw, Nyi Nyi Oo and Moe Kyaw were accused of having been in contact with underground cells and remained imprisoned.

Than Zaw said he does not bear any grudge against Khin Nyunt, despite the fact that upon his release, Than Zaw had spent more of his life in prison than he had as a free man.

“Just like Aung San Su Kyi said, I hold no grudge,” Than Zaw said. “I am not even jealous about the fact that he [Khin Nyunt] still lives a luxurious life. But I want to say one thing only: He is the only one who knows fully the extent of Myanmar citizens’ troubles because of his deeds.”

From Jailer to Jailed

After becoming a favorite disciple of the deceased former dictator Ne Win, Kyin Nyunt ascended as the head of military intelligence. He is regarded by many as the mastermind behind the capture, torture and imprisonment of hundreds of democracy and human rights activists during the 1988 student-led uprising.

But in October 2004, Khin Nyunt got a taste of his own medicine when he and 38 of his subordinate intelligence officers were arrested, dismissed from service and sentenced to lengthy prison terms on charges of accepting bribes and abuse of power. Khin Nyunt was sentenced to 44 years’ imprisonment, but the term was later relaxed to house arrest.

He was released from house arrest on Jan. 13, 2012, under an amnesty order by President Thein Sein.

Khin Nyunt’s face has recently returned to newsstands, TV screens and websites as journalists have flocked to his home, which these days also serves as a public space of art and coffee.

Media have been granted interviews with Khin Nyunt, but the former spymaster prefers that questions focus on his art gallery and the adjoining café and souvenir shop.

“I did many things [during military rule], as it was my duty for the country,” he told The Irrawaddy last month, providing nothing more specific about his time in the junta’s senior leadership. “It was a big burden. My life is free now and it is very different from the past.”

Back in the public eye with the opening of his Nawaday Art Gallery, Khin Nyunt’s reemergence has opened old wounds for some.

Daw Khin Hlaing Kyu’s husband, U Tin Maung Win, was elected to Parliament representing Khayan Township in the 1990 election, the results of which were ignored by the military regime. U Tin Maung Win was subsequently arrested and died in prison in 1991.

“I think to myself, ‘Oh, this man reappears.’ But it is I who suffered, as I lost the leader [my husband] for my family unit. Because of this, I had to struggle hard to bring up my sons and daughters,” Daw Khin Hlaing Kyu said, tears streaming down her face.

One of her sons was so stricken with grief that he could not complete his studies.

Many dissidents arrested by Khin Nyunt’s intelligence apparatus were ruthlessly tortured, with some losing their lives in prison, according to Ba Myo Thein, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his association with the People’s Defense Force (PDF).

“Those arrested wore hoods and were interrogated while they were kicked by intelligence members in different ways. They were also asked to stand on their toes for a long time,” said Ba Myo Thein, who was released from prison in 2010.

“l lost my freedom, and time,” he added. “The worst is my mother died while I was in prison. I had no place to live when I got released. I had to begin my life from zero again. But Khin Nyunt didn’t suffer like I suffered.”

Since his release from house arrest, Khin Nyunt has repeatedly insisted that his actions and orders as head of Burma’s military intelligence were a matter of duty—dictates from a higher authority.

For Ba Myo Thein and many others, that claim is a dubious one.

“I don’t accept that he said what he did was his duty. So what was his duty? I’d like to ask whether his duty was to systematically suppress and stop those who were trying for the development of our country. Now, if he changes his views on what he did, I’d say it is acceptable. But it is necessary that he apologizes publicly for his mistakes.”

Win Tin, a political figure as well as a journalist, said that although Khin Nyunt himself was imprisoned for more than seven years, the nature of his detainment and the manner in which he was released were hardly comparable to the circumstances of those whom he had put behind bars.

“It is absolutely different,” Win Tin said “There are two main differences. The first is that the political prisoners suffered a lot of troubles during their imprisonment. So compared to Khin Nyunt’s situation in prison, it differs in the way that hell is very different from heaven. After being released, it was very difficult for political prisoners to begin their lives again with dignity and grace, and also to integrate with society. But for Khin Nyunt, after being released, he is still capable of living grandiosely.”

Given the work that he does to help rehabilitate former political prisoners, Win Tin comes from an informed perspective. He also spent 19 years in prison, and was released in 2008.

Whatever the collateral damage—in terms of lives and livelihoods—of Khin Nyunt’s professed dedication to duty, the 73-year-old spymaster-turned-curator says he, at least, has found his peace.

“I want to create a peaceful life for myself. Now, I am peaceful,” he said. “I opened these shops and gallery with the hope that my life will become more peaceful.”