Guest Column

Myanmar’s Dictators Have Always Relied on a Brutal Secret Police Force

By Bertil Lintner 17 April 2023

Every dictatorship believes it needs a secret police force in order to survive in power, and the more brutal, the more effective. Nazi Germany had its Gestapo, or Geheime Staatspolizei: “The Secret State Police.” The Shah of Iran depended on Savak, the country’s domestic security and intelligence service, and Romania’s dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had his dreaded Securitate, “Department of State Security.” And Myanmar’s generals have their military intelligence service, which over the years has changed its name but always remained a main pillar of state power.

But because of its secretive nature, Myanmar’s military intelligence has also on at least two occasions morphed into a state within the state, which became a threat to the established order and, therefore, was purged with some of its leaders receiving lengthy prison sentences. The question of maintaining that blind loyalty is the reason why Myanmar’s current dictator, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, is keeping his top intelligence operatives closer to him than his predecessors did. Lieutenant General Ye Win Oo, head of what since 2020 has been called the Office of Chief of Military Security Affairs (OCMSA), accompanies Min Aung Hlaing at all meetings with the junta-appointed cabinet, to meetings with foreign diplomats, and during trips abroad.

Lieutenant General Ye Win Oo at the 18th ASEAN Military Intelligence videoconference meeting in March 2021. / Cincds

Lt-Gen Ye Win Oo went to Russia with Min Aung Hlaing in June 2021 to attend the 9th Moscow Conference on International Security, and again in July 2022 to meet state-owned nuclear energy and weapons companies. During the second trip, Ye Win Oo’s wife Nilar and other spouses of the generals also went along, but more for shopping in Moscow than to participate in any important meetings. Since the 2021 coup, Lt-Gen Ye Win Oo has been responsible for tracking down opponents to the junta and he also runs the military’s interrogation centers where detainees are subjected to torture, which usually includes electric chocks, burning of genitalia, pouring boiling liquid or chemical solutions down the mouths of victims, and rape if those arrested are women. The Internet and social media have made it possible to disseminate such information to the outside world, but the methods are as old as Myanmar’s military intelligence itself.

It dates back to General Ne Win, who seized power in 1962 and built up one of Asia’s most ruthless as well as efficient secret police forces. Originally called the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), it was known down to the lowliest non-English speaking peasant as em-eye and everybody feared it. Informants could be everywhere, sometimes even within dissident families. Ne Win was originally trained by the Japanese, in Tokyo in 1940-41 and when they occupied the then Burma 1942-45.

US Lieutenant Colonel James Mc Andrew states in his 2007 study of Myanmar’s military intelligence apparatus: “Chosen for both ‘guerilla tactics and clandestine activities’ and ‘special’ leadership training was the future dictator and longtime strongman, Ne Win. Significantly, this curriculum included intelligence training provided by the Kempeitai, the brutal Japanese Military Police and counterintelligence organization. Being selected for Kempeitai is more than noteworthy in hindsight, and it must be viewed as an important early demonstration to Ne Win that maintaining coercive intelligence and counterintelligence organizations were essential to maintaining authoritarian rule.”

Ne Win’s trusted intelligence chief for many years was his subordinate Brigadier General Tin Oo — not to be confused with the National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Tin Oo, or Tin U, a retired general and former army chief. ‘MI Tin Oo’, as he became known, was trained by the US’s Central Intelligence Agency on the US-held Pacific island of Saipan in 1957, and so was Lay Maung, who rose to become a top jurist for the military and Myanmar’s foreign minister 1980-1981.

In those days, US support for Myanmar’s military was motivated by the fact that it fought against the insurgent Communist Party of Burma, but that cooperation came to an abrupt end in 1961 when the military and the People’s Liberation Army of China began joint operations against remnants of US-supported, nationalist Chinese Kuomintang forces who had been ensconced in eastern Shan State since their defeat in China’s civil war.

Even if judicial executions of political opponents were the exception rather than the rule, anyone suspected of having contacts with the political or ethnic opponents of Ne Win’s regime was likely to be arrested and tortured while in jail. The MIS also had its own prison and torture center, the infamous Yay Kyi Aing, or “Clearwater Pond”. Many political prisoners were tortured to death there and in other, smaller MIS-run jails all over the country. The MIS kept a watchful eye not only on ordinary citizens, but especially army officers with perceived liberal ideas, which apart from constant rotations, corruption and institutional brutality contributed to the remarkable cohesiveness of Myanmar’s armed forces.

MIS agents also watched politicized exiles living in Britain, West Germany, Thailand, Australia and the USA. For many years, mutual suspicion neutralized them as a political force because no one was ever sure who was an informant or not.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the MIS was becoming increasingly powerful, and, at the time, Rodney Tasker characterized MI Tin Oo in the Far Eastern Economic Review: “He and his MIS colleagues were men of the world compared with the other short-sighted, dogmatic figures in the Burmese leadership. They were able to travel abroad, talk freely to foreigners and generally look beyond the rigid confines of the corrupt regime….although ruthless, he built up a reputation as a gregarious, open-minded, charismatic figure — a direct contrast to some of his mole-like colleagues in the leadership.”

But in May 1983, Ne Win’s regime suddenly and unexpectedly announced that Tin Oo had been “permitted to resign” along with his former aide, Colonel Bo Ni. They had been purged ostensibly because their wives were corrupt — a charge that could be brought against any army officer in the country. Tin Oo and Bo Ni were subsequently jailed — and the entire MIS apparatus purged as well. The reason behind the move, however, remained a matter for conjecture. It was suggested at the time that the urbane MIS people had become too powerful for comfort and had almost managed to establish another state-within-a-state, which threatened Ne Win’s inner circle of hand-picked, less-than-intelligent yes men.

Whatever the reason behind the purge, it had immediate effects on the security situation in the country. On October 9, 1983, 21 people, including four visiting South Korean cabinet ministers, were killed in a powerful explosion in Yangon. Three North Korean military officers were behind the atrocity. One of them was killed in a shoot-out with Burmese security forces, while the other two were captured alive. One of the bombers was executed in 1985, the other remained in Yangon’s Insein Prison until he died of natural causes in 2008. Observers at the time believe that the incident would never have taken place if MI Tin Oo had still been in charge; it clearly indicated that the military intelligence apparatus was no longer what is used to be. A new intelligence chief, General Khin Nyunt, was appointed in 1984. His Directorate of the Defense Services Intelligence (DDSI) soon became almost as efficient as the old outfit, and Khin Nyunt in many ways also resembled Tin Oo; he was fairly young and reasonably bright, but could be exceedingly ruthless whenever this was considered expedient by the old dictator, Ne Win.

General Khin Nyunt attends a summit in Bagan on November 12, 2003. / AFP

Less than four years after Khin Nyunt began rebuilding Myanmar’s shattered military intelligence apparatus, the country faced the largest civil unrest in its history. Millions of people nationwide marched against Ne Win’s regime and for a return to the democracy that the country had enjoyed before the 1962 coup. Any regime anywhere would have collapsed under the pressure of an entire population rising up against tyranny. That was not the case with Myanmar’s military-dominated regime, however. Thousands of people were gunned down in the streets of Yangon and elsewhere as the military stepped in, not to overthrow the government but to shore up a regime overwhelmed with popular protest. After the military had crushed the uprising, the DDSI was expanded. By 1991, nine new units were established and the DDSI also operated 19 detention centers, seven of them of Yangon, of which Yay Kyi Aing was still the most notorious. Undercover DDSI agents covered every movement of the NLD’s leaders and other opponents of the regime.

However in 2004 Khin Nyunt, who had become prime minister, was ousted and arrested along with up to 3,500 intelligence personnel countrywide, including some 300 senior officers. Khin Nyunt’s fall from grace followed the death of his mentor Ne Win in December 2002. The old general had been placed under house arrest earlier that year, allegedly because of the corrupt behavior of his daughter, Sanda Win, her husband Aye Zaw Win — and the couple’s three unruly grandsons, who had terrorized private businessmen in Yangon with demands for bribes and “protection money.” But few doubted that the move against Ne Win and his family came as preparation for the post-Ne Win era; to make sure that Khin Nyunt’s influence would be limited. The dictator, who had ruled with an iron fist for several decades, was cremated near his home in Yangon. The funeral was attended by a handful of family members and about 20 plainclothes military officers, none especially high-ranking.

Khin Nyunt’s ouster was not, as some reports in the foreign media at the time suggested, a power struggle between the “pragmatic” intelligence chief and “hardliners” within the military regime. A more plausible explanation for the purge was that Khin Nyunt and his DDSI had accumulated significant wealth through involvement in a wide range of commercial enterprises. They were building up a state within a state — like the old MI Tin Oo had done in the 1970s — and not sharing their riches with the rest of the military elite. Like Ne Win, the new dictator, Senior General Than Shwe, did not want to have any potential rivals around him, and Khin Nyunt clearly had political ambitions. He was a man not to be trusted.

Immediately following the ousting of Khin Nyunt, the latest intelligence outfit, the Office of the Chief of Military Intelligence [the expanded DDSI], was dissolved and an entirely new organization established: the OCMSA, which was placed under more direct military control. It is highly unlikely that Lt- Gen Ye Win Oo will repeat the mistakes which MI Tin Oo and Khin Nyunt committed, and Min Aung Hlaing may, at least for the foreseeable future, be secure.

OCMSA remained active throughout the decade of openness from 2011 to 2021, carefully watching the activities of politicians, activists and journalists. But Lt-Gen Ye Win Oo and his men unleashed the full force of the organization’s most brutal operatives after the 2021 coup. According to the rights group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), 3,194 people have been killed since then, while 17,075 people have been detained and 5,274 of them have been sentenced by a court. A total of 108 prisoners received the death penalty, 121 of them are in absentia. 150 are currently on death row awaiting execution. So far, according to AAPP’s data, 3,874 have been released from prison.

Until the 1988 uprising, Myanmar’s military intelligence conducted only limited operations overseas, mainly collecting information and giving the exiled community a scare. But after the dramatic events of the late 1980s and the subsequent flight of thousands of pro-democracy activists, especially to Thailand, its agents became more operational outside the country. Khin Nyunt’s right-hand man, Colonel Thein Swe sent thugs to beat up activists and, allegedly, ordered murders when he was defense attaché in Bangkok. In the early 1990s, the colonel built up an extensive network among diplomats, spies, informants and some media in Thailand. He was rewarded by being made the   top-ranking intelligence officer under Khin Nyunt after he returned to Myanmar.

Military intelligence officers Colonel Kyaw Thein (left), Colonel Thein Swe (center) and then Myanmar regime number two Colonel Kyaw Win consult before answering a journalist’s question during the monthly government press conference on February 1, 1997. / AFP

There is now every indication that the OCMSA is even more active in foreign countries. To the surprise of many, not only are regular operatives involved in keeping a watchful eye on activists, journalist and others in Thai cities like Chiang Mai and Mae Sot, but people who once played roles in the pro-democracy movement and the so-called “peace process” during the 2011-2016 U Thein Sein presidency have become informants.

At home in Myanmar, as The Irrawaddy has reported, old loyalties to military supremacy remain: even military intelligence operatives who were purged or sidelined in 2004 have been used as advisers. Among them are Colonel Ngwe Tun who was at the Defense Services Academy in Pyin Oo Lwin at the same time as Min Aung Hlaing, Lieutenant Colonel Nyan Linn, who in 1988 was responsible for distributing leaflets condemning democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Sai Aung Thein who used to serve in Kengtung in Shan State, Myint Htay, an operative who liaised with Pa-O militia leader Aung Kham Hti, Lin Mingxian, another militia leader at Mong La on the Myanmar-China border, and Thein Swe, the horror man of Bangkok who has become a Brigadier General. As Ne Win once put it, lukaun lutaw, which refers to his preference for promoting loyal cronies rather than talented persons. Significantly, Major General Kyaw Win, an intellectual who Than Shwe in 1993 appointed deputy head of DDSI to counterbalance the rising power of Khin Nyunt, has not been seen since the coup.

The future of the pro-democracy movement depends on its ability to understand the inner workings of Myanmar’s past and present military intelligence services [which to all intents and purposes have been a secret police], to map the current OCMSA’s activities, and counter them with increased vigilance in the streets — as well as in cyberspace. New, sophisticated electronic surveillance equipment, not available before, has been obtained from firms in Singapore and Israel. And with the military and its most repressive organ of power operating more closely than in the past, domestically as well as in foreign countries, the dangers are real.