From Feared Burma Spymaster to Art Gallery Owner

By Todd Pitman 2 January 2014

RANGOON — Former political prisoner Than Htay walked into a small souvenir shop, hoping to catch a glimpse of the owner: a man once known in Burma as the Prince of Darkness.

Moments later, he was face to face with the bespectacled 74-year-old, who had long ago traded his military uniform and polished black shoes for a simple button-down shirt and flip-flops.

The man he sought had been among the country’s most feared figures—a former junta leader whose intelligence apparatus jailed and tortured thousands of pro-democracy activists like Than Htay who stood against their rule. Now he runs a small art gallery that opened last year on the grounds of his sprawling residential compound, where he sells tourist crafts and dotes over his orchids.

The man, Khin Nyunt, smiled at his former captive. He was smaller than Than Htay had imagined.

“I walked over to him and said, ‘Hello, uncle. We used to be enemies,’” Than Htay said, recalling the moment several months ago he told the once all-powerful spymaster that he was among those jailed for dissent against the junta in the 1990s.

Khin Nyunt brushed aside that messy history and reached out to shake Than Htay’s hand. “What you speak of, that is in the past,” he said. “It’s nice to meet you.”

It was a meeting that showed that Burma has come a long way, but has a long way yet to go.

In 2011, this Southeast Asian country’s former military rulers ceded power to a government led by retired generals who surprised the world by embarking on an era economic and political reform. But no one responsible for a half-century of rights abuses under army rule has been held accountable, and some are trying to bury the past by remaking their images.

Khin Nyunt’s transformation may be the most spectacular: He now portrays himself as a genteel humanitarian who spends quiet days meditating peacefully, cultivating flowers and fruit trees, and spending time with family and two huge guard dogs named Chit Chit and Chaw Chaw — “Lovely” and “Cutie.”

“I’m not interested in politics anymore. That part of my life is over,” he said in a recent interview as the soothing tones of a traditional Burmese bamboo xylophone filled his souvenir shop. “I’m now focused only on my family.”

A protege of former dictator Ne Win, Khin Nyunt ascended through the ranks of Burma’s army to become one of the country’s most powerful people. In 1988, he was a member of the junta that seized power after crushing a pro-democracy student movement. He eventually took over the country’s intelligence apparatus, and spent years hunting down dissidents.

Among them was Than Htay, who was arrested in 1991 for funneling food and money to an anti-government militia. He spent five years in detention, where he said he was blindfolded, beaten with clubs, kicked and tortured with electric shocks.

Khin Nyunt became the junta’s prime minister in 2003, but his career came to an abrupt end a year later amid a reported power struggle with junta chief Than Shwe. He was accused of corruption and placed him under house arrest, and hundreds of his followers were jailed or purged.

Khin Nyunt said he was confined to his home for seven years, cut off from friends and relatives without a phone. He said his savings ran so low he was forced to sell orchids to survive, with sympathetic security officers guarding him taking the flowers to a nearby market.

In January 2012, he was freed in a general amnesty along with hundreds of political prisoners. But he said more than 20 of his associates are still detained.

The meetings he has had with former prisoners of conscience have been rare, and some have occurred by chance. He ran into Win Tin, an opposition party stalwart who spent 19 years in prison, during an awkward moment at a funeral.

Than Htay’s visit came as part of a field trip to Khin Nyunt’s art gallery with about 20 students from World Learning’s Institute for Political and Civic Engagement, a nonprofit group that provides pro-democracy education to civil society activists.

After brief introductions, students asked Khin Nyunt questions about his past and future. He answered most of them only obliquely.

“I felt pity for him, actually,” Than Htay said. “He was smiling, trying to be nice to us. He was pretending to be somebody totally different than he was.

“When he was in power, everybody had to show him their respect. But now he seems so lonely … he’s powerless.”

Than Htay said it is unjust that the ex-spymaster is living a comfortable life: “He should be facing trial for what he did. He should be in jail for the crimes he committed.”

Asked about well-documented abuses of dissidents such as Than Htay, Khin Nyunt said, “When you run a spy agency, you have to interrogate people to get answers. You have to use certain techniques. [But] what we did was no different than what the CIA does, or the KGB, or Mossad. You can’t say this was torture.”

Still, he added, “there were lots of things we did that I didn’t want to do. You had to follow orders. If you didn’t, it meant you were against the government and you would be punished.”

Khin Nyunt dismissed the unflattering sobriquets he acquired at the height of his power—another was “Prince of Evil.”

“Do I look scary to you?” he said, laughing.

Today, he lives in a large villa on one end of his compound with eight family members, including his wife, children and grandchildren. He spends his days strolling through his garden, which is filled with mango, pineapple and durian fruit trees.

He said he opened the gallery out of love for culture and to allow local painters, many of them poor and struggling, to exhibit their work. He takes a 20 percent commission from works that are sold, and said he channels much of it to education and health programs in his native upcountry village, something he hopes will bring him good karma as a Buddhist.

The gallery does modest business, and draws tourists unaware of who its owner is, as well as others who come specifically to hoping to see him. Beside it are a coffee shop and a souvenir store that sells tourist items like pricey petrified wood carvings from northern Burma.

Khin Nyunt has plenty of time on his hands. He said he spends much of it reading—books on Burmese history, local newspapers, and international news magazines that are no longer banned.

“One thing I have come to realize is, this is all about change,” he said. “Nothing is constant. Everything is in flux. Life changes. Things change. Human beings change.”

AP writer Esther Htusan contributed to this report.