RANGOON — The ex-chief of Burma’s feared military intelligence unit says political activists imprisoned under the former military regime were criminals who broke laws.
Speaking at an event in Rangoon on Thursday, Khin Nyunt rejected claims by former political prisoners that they had been arbitrarily detained.
“They are looking out for their own interests by saying they were imprisoned without reason. … Of course they broke the law, and they are guilty,” he said.
In addition to leading Burma’s powerful spy apparatus under military rule, Khin Nyunt was appointed as prime minister in 2003. He was purged from the government one year later, allegedly at the request of then-junta chief Than Shwe, and sentenced to 44 years in prison for corruption and insubordination. He served eight years under house arrest before being released in an amnesty for political prisoners in 2012, after a quasi-civilian government took power in 2011.
“Even I had to face 44 years of imprisonment because the government thought I was breaking the law,” he said. “I had to follow their decision. Determining whether a person is guilty depends on the rules and regulations of the government at the time. If the government assumes you broke the law and sues you, then you are guilty. There’s no reason to argue about this.”
The statements on Thursday came during a book launch event, in response to questions by reporters. The book by local journalist Myat Khine is a compilation of exclusive interviews with the former spy chief.
Khin Nyunt is said to have been among the key government players in a military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1988, leading to the deaths of thousands of people. Members of his military intelligence unit were accused of torturing and jailing activists from across the country.
Hundreds of political prisoners have been released since 2012, and President Thein Sein’s administration has pledged to free the rest before the end of this year. The most recent amnesty of 69 prisoners earlier this month nearly cut in half the number of political prisoners who were believed to be behind bars according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a Bangkok-based activist group.
Emboldened by recent reforms, former political prisoners have publicly blamed the military intelligence unit for arbitrary detention and torture.
Calls for an apology have come from veteran politician and journalist Win Tin, co-founder of the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). In an interview last month, Win Tin told The Irrawaddy that he believed junta leaders should apologize for the deaths of those who were killed in the 1988 crackdown, and for the mistreatment of detainees in prisons.
On Thursday, when asked by The Irrawaddy to comment on these demands, Khin Nyunt responded with a question of his own. “To whom should I apologize?” he said, refusing further comment.
Min Zayar, an activist from the 88 Generation Students group and a former political prisoner, called on government leaders to take responsibility for rights abuses.
“An apology must be made to all citizens,” he said. “Of course they would say we were guilty—we were always against the junta. But he [Khin Nyunt] and the military leaders must know that our freedom of expression and right to protest was barred terribly under their rule.
“We were tortured physically and mentally during interrogations and in prison. Our families also suffered. Everyone was afraid of those generals and their people. Demanding an apology and an admission of wrongdoing does not mean we want revenge, but we want them to learn from the past so they do not walk the same path in the present or future.”
Ye Aung, a member of the Rangoon-based Former Political Prisoners (FPP) group, an NGO offering assistance to released prisoners, said he doubted the government would free all political prisoners. Despite reform, he said, activists calling for basic rights for farmers and laborers were continuing to face detention, trials and prison sentences.
“There will always be political prisoners because they have not given us freedom of expression,” he said.
“Khin Nyunt keeps boasting that there is more transparency than before, but we can clearly see from this recent book of his interviews and from statements by other generals that there is still a lack of transparency—they dare not speak openly yet. They are always trying to cover up the past.”