In Name of Change, Burma Buries Past

By Erika Kinetz 29 March 2013

RANGOON — The day San Zaw Htwe was arrested he tried to chew through the leg of the wooden chair he was shackled to. He could hear a river outside. He figured he could swim away and escape the little room and the big men and the terrible certainty of years in prison.

The former student activist holds up a bony finger. “There was only this much left,” he says, breaking into a toothy smile at the memory of the chair leg. “They kicked me. My chair and I fell over.” Then his interrogators shackled him to a log.

He would serve 12 years for distributing anti-government leaflets.

San Zaw Htwe will turn 39 on Saturday, the second anniversary of the day President Thein Sein took office and pledged to transform Burma from a military dictatorship into a free-market democracy. Thein Sein’s administration has made remarkable progress toward that goal, but at a price that San Zaw Htwe knows only too well: forgetting the past.

Two years into Thein Sein’s four-year term, reform in Burma has taken on an enchanting momentum.

Released from house arrest, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has a seat in parliament. The media censorship office is shut. Most Western sanctions have been lifted, and foreign investors are pouring into this once-shunned Southeast Asian nation, eager to build hotels and airports, drill for natural gas and sell cars, beer, soda, medical devices and cellphone connections.

Lost in this great forward movement is a reckoning with the past. For half a century, Burma was ruled by one of the most repressive governments in history. Torture was common. Thousands of political prisoners were jailed without fair trial. And a handful of men, both military and their friends, amassed fortunes, sometimes brutally and often dishonestly.

Burma’s ongoing transformation has been largely managed from above, by some of the very men and institutions implicated in abuses. Many fear that dredging up the past could imperil reform. For now at least, silence seems the best way to shore up progress.

But pieces of the unresolved past are posing challenges to reform. The end of military rule, which held this multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation together with an iron fist, has unleashed sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims. Initially in remote Arakan State, it spread last week to central Burma, where 40 people were killed halfway between the capital, Naypyidaw, and Mandalay.

Elsewhere, ceasefires have been signed with most ethnic rebel groups, but a 17-year truce with the Kachin has broken down, reigniting hostilities.

San Zaw Htwe, the former student activist, doesn’t want revenge. But he does want to fill in the blank spaces in Burma’s history.

To fight the old regime, he forsook his family, his education and his prospects for a good job and marriage. His family was shunned by its neighbors. While others grew rich, he grew poor. His old school friends got fat. He stayed skinny. Today he has no wife, no children, a temporary job teaching art, a bad stomach, a persistent cough and ears that still trouble him after being boxed in the head too many times.

“Without confessing your wrongs, how can you do right?” San Zaw Htwe says. “There should be a situation to reveal the truth of what happened in the past. … Mostly the responsibility is on the ones who ruled the country, Than Shwe and also Thein Sein.”

But he knows that is unlikely to happen. The constitution rules out prosecution of former leaders. Than Shwe, whose two decades in power were marked by isolationist paranoia and brutality, remains untouchable. The government has made it clear that it intends to respect most contracts made by past regimes, even if they are unfavorable and perhaps unfair.

For San Zaw Htwe, letting go of the past is the price of change. “There is no way apart from this,” he says.

Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, has also chosen pragmatism. She has welcomed donations from businessmen close to the former military government to charities run by her political party, helping them whitewash their image. She has reached out to the army over the objections of some in her party, appearing for the first time at the military’s annual Armed Forces Day ceremony this week.

Khin Moe Aye, who sustained herself through three prison terms with the idea that she was fighting for the people of Burma, says she supports Suu Kyi’s willingness to compromise with the vested interests that could scuttle change.

“When I was young, I did have this feeling to get revenge. I was very angry.” she says. But now is a time for forgiveness: “To get a good political result, I have to change my mind to be more optimistic about the past.”

Buddhism helps. “In prison we meditated,” she says. “That’s why we could forgive them easily.”

Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Burma, warns against ignoring the past.

“There is a legal obligation to hold accountable those who have committed human rights abuses,” he said in an interview. “You might find reconciliation in the short term, but at some point you will need to face these important questions.”

San Zaw Htwe spends his days in a sunlit room on the second floor of his parents’ home, trying to build a life from the scraps of pretty-colored trash he collects, cuts and pastes into pastoral landscapes, a hobby he developed in prison. He sells the collages at an art gallery.

One of his old school friends runs a publishing house. Another sells construction material. Another made a fortune in Singapore. When San Zaw Htwe considers what he lost during his prison years, he struggles to control his face and his eyes well with tears.

“I would have been able to finish my education, and also I would have been able to live with my family, all together,” he says. “I am part of them but I was absent.”

His mother’s judgment is brusquer. “He lost his whole life,” says 70-year-old Ohn Khin. “His education and his youth.”

The first time she went to see her son in prison — three months after he vanished, leaving her afraid he was dead — she peered through a double wire grating and, trying to make out his face, told him: “‘You are too stupid. Why do you do this?”

He replied, “I have no regrets,” she recalls.

Today, she is trying to find him a wife. She wants the leaders of the old regime to be held accountable.

“He’s still suffering from what they did to him,” she says. “I want to pound them like a powder.”

San Zaw Htwe’s father, San Hlaing, has grown to value the choices his rebellious son made.

“I didn’t like the government since we were young, but we always had to bow,” he says. “Now I think my son is doing the right thing. I also see the fruit of his effort.”

San Zaw Htwe is still politically active, fighting a copper mine in the northwest and pushing for the reopening of Yangon University, which the former government basically shut down for fear of student revolt. “We have to encourage the sufferers to tell the truth,” he says. If the powerful won’t fill in the blank spots in Burma’s past, he figures, the weak will have to.