An Old Spook Revives Ghosts of Burma's Past

By Aung Zaw 12 April 2012

The press conference held by Burma’s Special Branch on Wednesday to counter an interview with former secret police chief Khin Nyunt published by The Bangkok Post last Sunday demonstrates that the country’s political transition remains fragile and that the old guard remains powerful and ready to pounce.

High-ranking officials are reportedly “furious” with Khin Nyunt, who was recently released from years under house arrest, and say they fear reprisals from former junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe.

Immediately after the interview with Khin Nyunt appeared in print, Burmese government officials interrogated him about his comment that he “saved” pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s life during the Depayin Massacre in 2003. Than Shwe is generally believed to have been the mastermind behind the plot to eliminate the popular leader of Burma’s democratic struggle.

“I sent my men to snatch her from the mob that night and they brought her to safety to a nearby army cantonment,” Khin Nyunt was quoted as saying.

However, according to a statement made by the Special Branch on Wednesday, Khin Nyunt has denied speaking to The Bangkok Post and rejected allegations that he made such a claim.

Tin Oo, a leading member of Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), rejected Khin Nyunt’s comments: “If he [really] saved Aung San Suu Kyi, he should have sent her home. Why did he send her to jail instead?”

This reminds many Burmese of a well-known incident in July 1988.

During an emergency parliament session under then dictator Ne Win, former Brig-Gen Aung Gyi, who was a member of the Revolutionary Council that took power in 1962, was accused of dynamiting the historic Student Union building on the campus of Rangoon University. It was Ne Win who dropped this bombshell, at a time when he was under mounting pressure from student protests to find a scapegoat for crimes committed under his regime. Now some opposition members say history may be repeating itself.

Whatever Khin Nyunt may want people to think about his own role in past incidents, he is no hero to most Burmese. He is also treading on very thin ice with his former colleagues in the military.

“What is he trying to prove?” bellowed one senior officer I spoke to over the phone. “We could put him back in prison anytime.”

Now under under orders to keep his mouth shut after poking the hornet’s nest, Khin Nyunt has ordained  as a monk, and his colleagues are keeping a very low profile.

In fact, since his release in January, Khin Nyunt has kept himself in the public eye, despite his claims that he has no ambitions to return to politics. His remarks have been published in local papers, and his activities are occasionally a topic of discussion in the local press and on social media websites.

Few believe that he is sincere when he says he isn’t seeking a public role for himself. Since his release, he has set up a charitable foundation, traveled in the countryside and met with old friends who say his interest in national politics is still strong. Several tycoons and loyal former subordinates are also keen to bring him back to prominence.

What is interesting is that the former spy chief remains a thorn in the side of the generals and has many enemies in the armed forces. He is also widely reviled by the rest of the country. The question is—why the continued antagonism toward a man who professes to want nothing more than to retire from the limelight?

One reason is fear. Khin Nyunt still holds official dossiers and can recount the full extent of corruption and abuses of power among top ministers from during his time in office.

Another is a desire for justice. Khin Nyunt was one of the main architects of the bloody crackdown on the 1988 pro-democracy uprising—he and several top generals were summoned to Ne Win’s residence days before the Sept. 18 coup that ruthlessly crushed months of peaceful protests. Nearly a quarter of a century later, relatives of his victims are still waiting for the day when he will pay for his crimes.

Khin Nyunt dramatic rise through the ranks of the military and former junta came at a time of national tragedy. Just a colonel when the uprising was put down, he was soon elevated to the position of Secretary One of the new ruling council, known as State Law and Order Restoration Council. A favorite of Ne Win, he was handpicked by the disgraced dictator to serve as his new spymaster.

In the foreign press, he was described as Burma’s most powerful general until his downfall in 2004. Until his ouster in that year, his secret police jailed and tortured countless political activists, politicians and students.

Besides setting up a feared intelligence agency, he also created a strategic study center to repair the regime’s image and improve ties with the West. Even then, despite being known to most Burmese as their country’s “prince of evil,” Khin Nyunt sought to win over foreign observers by projecting an image of himself as a reform-minded moderate. Visiting US congressman Bill Richardson once said Burma’s future would be determined by two people—Aung San Suu Kyi and Khin Nyunt. But Khin Nyunt’s enemies made sure Richardson was wrong.

Khin Nyunt’s ambition and daily appearances in the media did not go down well with generals from the powerful infantry, especially when they learned that his intelligence apparatus was busy collecting incriminating dossiers on them. He got locked into a bitter power struggle with the powerful generals, who finally decided to counter him and his powerful intelligence units.

Than Shwe, who sat on the fence at the beginning of this drama, later established his own team to remove Khin Nyunt. In 2004, two years after his former benefactor Ne Win was placed under house arrest and several of his relatives were imprisoned for allegedly plotting to overthrow the regime, Khin Nyunt was arrested and charged with insubordination and corruption. His notorious spy department was dismantled and many of his subordinates were thrown in jail. But Khin Nyunt himself was allowed to serve his suspended 44-year prison sentence under house arrest.

For the infantry officers, Khin Nyunt’s downfall was cause for celebration. Many opened bottles of champagne or whiskey to mark the occasion of his demise.

Despite Khin Nyunt’s release as part of an amnesty earlier this year, many of those who served under him remain in prison. When I visited Burma last month, few people I spoke to had any sympathy for them. I was also shocked to learn that one former intelligence officer had remarked that I should never have been allowed back into the country. He said that as I was once regarded as an enemy of the state, I should never be permitted to set foot in Burma again. He also admitted that, under Khin Nyunt’s guidance, he once attempted to arrest me with the help of Thai officials. The Thais finally arrested an Aung Zaw, but it wasn’t me. When the Burmese intelligence officer came to Bangkok, he discovered that the person they had in custody was another Burmese man with the same name.

While I was in Burma, I also met another former intelligence officer who had served under Khin Nyunt and asked him why his ex-boss had been freed. His answer was that it was the government’s strategy to counter the release of prominent student leaders Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, who were released at about the same time.

But Khin Nyunt’s release was not unconditional—he was told not to upset Than Shwe or his former number two, Gen Maung Aye. If he did, he could be placed under house arrest again.

Several government officials told me a few days after reading Khin Nyunt’s Bangkok Post interview that they feared the former spy chief’s words had woken the sleeping tiger—meaning Than Shwe, who is officially retired but actually still actively following recent developments closely. (I was told that he has his own staff from the previous regime and still goes to his office.)

Going into damage-control mode, on April 9, President Thein Sein reportedly called an emergency meeting where it was decided to hold a press briefing to deny Khin Nyunt’s comments. It was a desperate and somewhat ludicrous attempt to put the genie back into the bottle.

The press briefing did not impress local journalists, who said that it was completely one-sided and clearly showed how jittery the government was about the whole affair. The local press was forbidden to mention Depayin and Khin Nyunt’s remarks—so much for Burma’s new era of press freedom!

Thein Sein’s next move was to hastily arrange a meeting with Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw. It was a strictly one-on-one meeting, with no one else in attendance.

The president, who is portrayed in the foreign press as a reform-minded and mild-mannered former general, knows he has to watch his back. A senior official told me that the president’s most formidable opposition comes not from Suu Kyi and the NLD, but from elements within his own government. While no one knows what he and Suu Kyi discussed, it is widely assumed that one topic was the need to maintain stability and avoid mentioning past atrocities at this stage.

Since her release in November 2010, Suu Kyi has been careful not to say anything about Depayin. Indeed, very few in the opposition have mentioned the 1988 crackdown, the 2003 Depayin massacre, the 2007 Saffron Revolution or any of the many other occasions when the former regime used brutal force against its opponents. Everyone knows that one day Burma will need a peace and reconciliation commission to speak about the past, but they also know that now is not the time to talk about revenge.

When the time does come, however, for a proper day of reckoning, Khin Nyunt will have his chance to tell his side of the story. Even if, as now, no one fully believes his version of events, his testimony will be invaluable to Burma’s efforts to confront the ghosts of its past.