Still Not Sorry: Neither Modesty nor Mea Culpa in Khin Nyunt Memoir

By Sean Gleeson 3 March 2015

RANGOON — “To whom should I apologize?” Khin Nyunt infamously retorted in 2013, a year after his release from almost a decade of house arrest, when asked by a reporter whether he would express contrition for his role in Burma’s former military junta. If the former prime minister’s new autobiography is any measure, his quest to find a suitable cause for atonement continues.

Released over the weekend, the Burmese-language “My Life Experience” covers the former general’s rise through the country’s armed forces to the head of Military Intelligence (MI), his role in negotiating peace with the disparate ethnic armies and drug lords, and his rocky tenure as prime minister of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which ended in his unceremonious dumping and detention in October 2004.

As a protégé of former dictator Gen. Ne Win, Khin Nyunt remained a resolute defender of the crackdown on nationwide democracy protests in 1988, which ushered in 22 years of military rule.

“It was not a coup, but an action by the army to ensure the safety of the people,” he wrote.

The former prime minister’s esteem remains intact for Snr-Gen Than Shwe, the long-serving former chairman of the SPDC, with the new memoir fondly reflecting on their 50-year association.

“We discharged military and State duties together for a very long time and it is true that we had mutual respect,” he wrote. “I accomplished any duty assigned by Snr-Gen Than Shwe as he was my superior and leader of the State. I believe he also had trust in me and was friendly toward me.”

The pair met in 1966, when Than Shwe became Khin Nyunt’s commanding officer, and later bought adjacent plots of land to build homes near Rangoon’s 8 Mile Junction. The former prime minister appears to bear no animosity toward Burma’s last dictator, despite Khin Nyunt’s 44-year sentence on corruption charges being widely viewed as the endgame in a power struggle between the two figures.

“It can’t be that I was punished solely through his desire,” he wrote. “There were certain persons who persuaded him and made him take action against me, and I know who they are. But, I don’t want to reveal them. Let it be.”

Nonetheless, Khin Nyunt readily implicates Than Shwe in the 2003 Depayin Massacre, during which a convoy transporting National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi was attacked by a pro-junta militia, leading to the deaths of up to 70 of her supporters.

“That time, Aung San Suu Kyi was campaigning in a long convoy from place to place, which was a concern for our government,” the book reads. “When the convoy of Aung San Suu Kyi arrived in Monywa from Mandalay, the SPDC chairman [Than Shwe] summoned me and four or five other senior leaders and told us to stop the convoy by all means. I said we should not use violence and the leader did not agree with me. Then he did not assign the duty to me, instead asking Lt-Gen Soe Win to handle it.”

Khin Nyunt previously declared that he bore no responsibility for the Depayin Massacre in a 2012 interview with the Bangkok Post, soon after his release from house arrest. Afterward, he was interrogated by government officials and a statement was released by Burma’s Special Branch police, rejecting suggestions that he had either spoken to the Post or publicly made such a claim.

At the time, senior NLD figure Tin Oo rejected Khin Nyunt’s comments.

“If he [really] saved Aung San Suu Kyi, he should have sent her home,” Tin Oo said. “Why did he send her to jail instead?”

In discussing the circumstances around the events in Depayin, the memoir expressed warmth for Suu Kyi, with Khin Nyunt stating that he considers her as a sister and respects her as the daughter of independence leader Gen. Aung San and an icon of democracy. The former prime minister claims to have arranged a secret meeting with the opposition leader in 2003, hoping to encourage the NLD to participate in the first constitutional convention in seven years.

The convention was eventually reconvened a year later, without the presence of the NLD, which led to the implementation of a military-drafted constitution after a widely discredited 2008 referendum. Following the Depayin massacre, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest for the third time in May 2003 and stayed in detention for the duration of Khin Nyunt’s prime ministership, which began three months later.

Khin Nyunt’s 2004 downfall was soon followed by the dissolution of Military Intelligence, a sprawling network of agents across the country which spied on government officials and detained opposition activists, and which formed the core of the former prime minister’s support base. Many senior MI members were imprisoned as a result.

Speaking in November 2013, Khin Nyunt said he rejected claims that the junta’s former political prisoners had been unjustly detained and shrugged off accusations of guilt. Responding to suggestions by the late Win Tin, a co-founder of the NLD, that junta leaders should apologize for civilian deaths in the 1988 crackdown and the mistreatment of political prisoners, Khin Nyunt asked to whom he should be expected to apologize.

The former prime minister’s new book said he had petitioned the government to release his former MI staffers, and promised to ensure their fealty to the new, nominally civilian government.

“My staffers are not political prisoners and not rebels,” the book reads. “Maybe they did wrong out of their greed. In December 2013, I sent a letter to President U Thein Sein, telling him that I would take responsibility for my staffers who are still behind bars and I would make them pledge that they would be loyal to the country.”

While not confessing to any misdeeds of his own, Khin Nyunt said he regretted the disbandment of Military Intelligence for the wrongful actions of a few, and accepted responsibility for the shortcomings of the unit.

“In fact, it is not that the entire MI was not good,” he wrote. “There were many good staffers. I couldn’t put any blame on them because I am a responsible person. I take it that I am responsible for all. I apologize on behalf of my staffers who did wrong.”

The remarks were seemingly in contrast to those he gave to The Irrawaddy in 2012, during which he appeared to lay blame for the sufferings of the junta era at the feet of his superiors.

“I didn’t torture people, or put people in prison,” he said at the time. “But in the military, we have to follow orders.”

Excerpts of “My Life Experience” were translated by Thet Ko Ko.